Hosting a backyard party is the perfect way to embrace seasonal eating and community! Here are backyard party ideas, based on a simple dinner party on Leelenau Pennisula, Michigan.
All photos by Mike Gilger, The Fresh Exchange
“I have always loved setting the table, cooking, and gathering ingredients to share with people. But when I think about what matters the most it rarely comes down to the uniqueness of the table setting and more on the ability to leave space for community and connection. Even the simplest meal can feel special, intimate, and beautiful even if it is just white tablecloth and napkins made from spare fabric. The simplest things when gathering are usually the greatest.” -Megan Gilger, The Fresh Exchange
Related: A Pretty Simple Dinner Party with A Couple Cooks — Megan’s post about the evening!
The magic of gathering
A few weeks ago, Alex and I drove up to Leelenau Pennisula, Michigan for a simple backyard party based on our cookbook, Pretty Simple Cooking. Our friends Megan and Mike of The Fresh Exchange generously offered to host the gathering in the backyard of their white modern farmhouse in Traverse City. Driving north from Indiana, the moment you hit the Michigan state line you can sense a change. There’s a certain magic to the Michigan ecosystem, with its blueberry bushes, sand dunes and clear blue green waters. Alex’s great grandfather used to be a fruit farmer in Michigan, so he has it in his blood. Both of us can feel the pull of this land.
Have you ever sat at a dinner table so intimate it felt sacred? This is the reason we love gatherings so much. It’s not just about the food. It’s about an open space for connection with other humans. The table is a place to feel fully known. It’s a place to feel heard. This is why we gather—not just to eat, but to engage in community and connection. Delicious, seasonal and nourishing food is just a bonus.
Our backyard party ideas
Have you ever been part of a dinner party to celebrate seasonal food and community? For this backyard party, Megan and Mike created an incredible yet simple space to enjoy company and the fruits of summer. We spent quite a bit of time preparing for it, but the overall concepts and approach was simple. Here are some tips and backyard party ideas, our menu from Pretty Simple Cooking, and the gorgeous photographs of the day captured by Mike Gilger.
Curate the menu from one cookbook, and all pitch in.
Have you heard of a cookbook club? It’s a gathering where people all bring dishes from the same cookbook. This way, the menu all has the same vibe and goes together using the same author’s touch. What we love about this approach is two-fold. Having dinner party guests bring a dish helps everyone to feel like they’re a part of the gathering, and it lessens the burden on the dinner party host. And, you avoid the randomness of a potluck, where you end up with small piles of vastly different dishes on your plate instead of a cohesive meal.
For this backyard party, we did a cookbook club based on our cookbook, Pretty Simple Cooking! As the host, Alex and I chose the menu and then each dinner guest signed up for a different item. Our tradition for a cookbook club is to have the host make the main dish, since it’s usually hardest to transport. The dinner party guests then bring appetizers, sides, salads, and desserts.
Our simple Backyard Party menu
From the Pretty Simple Cooking cookbook
Goat Cheese & Honey Thyme Crostini with Plums
Vegetarian Lentil Gyros
Tangy Cucumber & Onion Salad
Peaches & Greens Salad with Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette
Vanilla Orange Strawberry Shortcakes
Shop the farmer’s market.
Alex and I get this question all the time: How do I actually do seasonal eating? How do I shop my local farmer’s market to create a meal? As with most of cooking, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. Learning what’s in season and how to fit seasonal produce into recipes comes with time. When Alex and I curated the menu above, we selected recipes where we knew there would be opportunity for seasonal food in the Leelenau Penninsula: peaches, plums, salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, and berries. Knowing the rhythm of food that comes with the seasons is specific to your region. Our best recommendation is: don’t use Google search to see what’s in season. Actually GO to your local farmer’s market and start to observe when you see different foods appear.
Most times Alex and I will go to the market, grab a bunch of foods and THEN Google search to find recipes that use the various foods we’ve picked up. This is the right time to use Google! It’s a great resource to see how to use your new seasonal produce (and we hope you’ll find our recipes!). But in the case of a planned dinner party like this one, we chose the recipes in advance. If you’re doing it this way, our best tip is to learn to improvise recipes based on what’s on hand! See below.
Improvise on recipes as necessary.
Another place we get a lot of questions is how to improvise when cooking. How do I know when I can substitute one ingredient for another? How do I customize recipes based on seasonal eating? How do I adjust for dietary preferences? Again, this is a place for practice and trial and error. It’s easiest explained in an example, so here’s the example from our dinner party:
- Peaches & Greens Salad: We found local peaches and greens at the local Sarah Hardy Farmer’s Market, but Megan had also picked blackberries from the bushes on her property so we added them here. We also substituted feta crumbles for the goat cheese (due to a personal preference), and crunchy pumpkin seeds for the hazelnuts (due to a nut allergy).
- Vanilla Orange Strawberry Shortcakes: Strawberries were not in season, but we had gone blueberry picking at a local Leelenau Peninsula blueberry farm. So, we made Blueberry Shortcakes instead by subbing in blueberries! They were just as delicious.
- Goat Cheese & Honey Thyme Crostini with Plums: For this appetizer, our dinner guest made the crostini with plums AND a variation with blackberries. The blackberries paired perfectly with the goat cheese.
- Grilled Corn: Often improvising has to do with time management! We were running short on time, so instead of the planned grilled corn we made a snap decision to boil it and slather it with smoked butter from the farmer’s market. Making quick decisions to improvise on the fly is what hosting a dinner party is all about!
Go simple on decor.
The decor for this backyard party was elegantly simple, put together by Megan and Mike. Hanging a few strands of outdoor lights transforms a space from modest to magical. For this setup, there was some manual labor involved in setting up poles to hang the lights from. If you’re not up for that sort of work, you could use a tree to suspend the lights, or have the table near a deck, fence, or structure to use for hanging.
For the tablescape, Megan went super simple: a blue-gray chambray tablecloth, white dishes, simple patterned napkins, a few candles, and some flowers. She is talented at flower arranging and grabbed the flowers from a local farm, Loma Farm. However, many times your local farmers market will sell bouquets already assembled! Or, you could place all of one type of flower in a ball jar.
Cultivate space for community and connection.
Once you’ve gotten everything prepared for your backyard party, now’s when the fun begins! It takes some practice, but we have learned how to let go of any challenges that happened during the preparation and focus on our guests. During mingling with appetizers, we like to make sure everyone has met each other and knows a few things about each other. Our favorite type of dinner party is inviting old friends and a few new people into the fold, so we try to make sure connections are made during mingling time.
When the meal begins, we like to welcome everyone to the table and describe a bit about the meal we’ll be having. This way, the floor is open for all the dinner guests to experience and enjoy the meal together. To foster deeper connections, at some meals we’ve also chosen some questions to discuss: a way to even further get to know each other! This meal was a lovely mix of Megan and Mike’s friends and neighbors in the Leelenau Pennisula. Though we had just met, we were able to delve into deep topics because of the willingness of the others around the table to be real with each other. This is what we love about gatherings: experiencing seasonal foods together and chatting until the sky is dark and the moon is bright.
- Thanks for reading about our backyard party ideas and this Pretty Simple Dinner Party! This was the second gathering of our Pretty Simple Dinner Party: a virtual worldwide dinner party to celebrate good food and good people!
- Here’s how to order Pretty Simple Cooking. And How to Start a Cookbook Club.
- Megan Gilger runs The Fresh Exchange website and Instagram, where she has tons of resources around gathering and seasonal eating. Follow her there!
- Megan is also opening a new venture, a shop called Shop Fresh Exchange with products made by her and other local artisans! The online store will open in October and in March 2019 she’ll launch a large collection of products. Her dream is to launch a brick and mortar store in the Leelenau Peninsula in the next few years.
- Want to hear from Megan? She was a guest on our podcast Episode 57, The Art of the Dinner Party.
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.