Expert Advice: How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party

There’s something about summer that invites spontaneity: one last quick dip in the lake before dinner, an afternoon drive to nowhere in particular, spur-of-the-moment dinners taken outside in the garden. Some of the most memorable summer evenings start out this way: an impromptu dinner party, just because it’s too beautiful to call it a night. (Or because company drops by unexpectedly.)

How to pull off a festive dinner—to make sure there’s something to eat, and that it’s just a bit special—when there’s no time to run to the grocery store, the florist, or the farmer’s market? (Or, when you’d rather spend the hours before a party reading in a hammock, not running errands?) We asked Jill Donenfeld, a chef and cookbook writer who, as a co-founder of in-home chef company , knows a few things about throwing a party. Here are her easy last-minute tips.

1. Keep essentials on hand.

Current Obsessions Upcycled Finds 700 jen catto planting party 5 Above: Photograph by  from .

To be ready on a moment’s notice—or, so that you can invite the gang over straight from the beach and avoid a stop at the grocery store—keep a few essentials on hand. An instant dinner? “Pasta, anchovies, tomato paste, lemons, walnuts,” Donenfeld says, almost all of which you can keep stocked in the pantry. “Finish with a simple salad: Bibb lettuce, mustard, honey, olive oil, lemon, raisins.” As for the bar, keep it stocked with the basics: “tequila, gin, vermouth, Pellegrino equals tequila and soda, gin martinis, and sparkling water.”

2. Shop the house.

Current Obsessions Upcycled Finds Tiina Laakonen summer table Heikki Aho 3 Remodelista copy Above: Photograph by Heikki Aho for Remodelista, from .

Once dinner’s started, scour the house for what you already have: “Any textiles, bright and patterned, that can be used as a tablecloth or runner,” Donenfeld says. “Light all the candles you have and dim the lights.”

3. Add bits and bobs from nature.

If you have a few extra minutes, add a simple, small detail to make it just a bit more special than any old weeknight dinner. “If you are a collector of rocks or shells like I am, find your prettiest pieces and place one at each person’s table setting: plate, napkin on top, a piece of coral to secure it,” Donenfeld says.

4. Float flowers.

Current Obsessions Upcycled Finds Cécile Daladier Atelier Garden in Paris, France Above: Photography by and styling by  for Gardenista, as seen in .

Don’t feel like you need big, lush flower arrangements to make it a party. “Float flowers in bowls—anything you find on a walk, forage, or get from the grocer,” says Donenfeld. “My favorites in season now are rhododendrons: big pink pompoms. If you prefer a cleaner, upright look, one calla lily and one closed peony make for nice small arrangements that you can source from the deli.”

5. Let food double as decor.

Current Obsessions Upcycled Finds 700 remodelista dinner oysters west elm Above: Photograph by for Remodelista, from .

“I like a functional table, since room is often limited,” Donenfeld says. For example: “I am always a fan of baguettes between the guests. Lay them perpendicular across the table between each ‘two-top’.” Or, line the center of the table with “a long trough of steamed clams”, Donenfeld says. It’ll do double duty as a first course and give a sense of summer, in all its fresh-from-the-sea abundance.

More summer entertaining tips:

N.B.: Featured photograph by  from .