5 Effortless Ways to Create a Summer Entertaining Oasis

Make your backyard or nearest park look like a million bucks on a budget this summer.

wine bottles in ice bucket, plates and forks on picnic table

The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Margaret Monroe Dickey, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

After winter’s glitzy holiday parties and spring’s fancy brunches, summertime entertaining is refreshingly laid back. Setting up your backyard or patio for a cookout is all about creating a relaxing, casual space for your guests. If you’re hosting a BBQ or summer cookout, you can forget costly serveware and coordinated centerpieces. Go ahead and set the table with the durable, easy-to-wash plates. And by all means, don’t overspend on the decor. Curating a summer entertaining oasis is all about creative, imperfect pieces that add color and fun. When you save time and money on the decor, you can focus on the stuff that really matters, like how to grill a big batch of burgers without losing your cool, and (of course!) enjoying every minute.

1. Upgrade Your Tablecloth with a Waterproof Oilcloth

Consider this functional upgrade for picnic tables: the oilcloth. Oilcloths are made from tightly woven cotton or linen, and treated with linseed oil. The result is a durable tablecloth that doesn’t feel oily to the touch—but can withstand spills and resist staining. 

Oilcloths are typically brightly colored, and feature fun, eye-popping patterns (including seasonal and holiday-themed options) that add whimsy and charm to any outdoor space. To clean an oilcloth, all you need to do is wipe it down with a damp rag or sponge, so go ahead and serve up that extra-saucy barbecue. Plus, with big-name brands selling XL oilcloths for under $100, they’re a very affordable option.

2. Go Thrifting for Mismatched Drinkware

You can spend a small fortune outfitting your home bar with matching glassware. But if you forgo the need to be matchy-matchy, there’s a more affordable option. Shell Royster, a food, product, and prop stylist and photographer (and the creative force behind the props in our Grill-A-Palooza shoot!) loves shopping for perfectly imperfect glassware at thrift stores. If one gets knocked off a table or chipped, you won’t have to fret about it: just buy a new, totally unique option. Setting up the glasses on your table or bar cart, and letting your guests choose the one that “speaks” to them is a fun icebreaker, too. 

Royster chooses a color palette (she often pulls ideas from Pantone) to keep things semi-coordinated. When shopping, she holds each glass up to the light to assess its true color. Oh, and just in case there was any doubt: If there’s a rule against drinking wine out of a juice glass, we’ll be the first ones to break it. Royster recommends choosing glassware in a variety of heights and textures, including smooth and etched glass.

3. Use a Metal Ice Bucket Instead of a Pricey Cooler

Brand-name coolers are insulated, and are a good option for transporting brews and beverages. But if you’re setting up shop in your backyard or patio, there’s no need to spend all that cash for bonus features. A simple metal bucket filled with ice is a less spendy option for keeping your drinks cold all day and evening long. Choose a deep, wide bucket, so you have room for #allofthedrinks. Decorative touches, like woven handles, are pretty and functional, too—this Amazon score is a top seller, and comes in unique colors and designs. Royster notes that you can also find basic metal buckets for cheap at big box stores, home improvement stores, and gardening centers.

4. Light Up the Night with String Lights

If your party goes into the golden hour and beyond, you’ll need to provide lighting options for both the grill station and your guests. A floodlight will get the job done, but they don’t do a ton for ambiance. To up the class-factor, grab a few sets of string lights and set them up around your outdoor space. (A pergola or covered deck provides an obvious option, but you can also attach them to a deck railing, or string them up around tree trunks.)

Battery-operated lights are less expensive, and don’t require an outlet. But they can be dim, and have small bulbs and short strands. If you have an outdoor outlet handy (or an extension cord), it’s worth springing for Edison-style bulbs. Royster says she prefers them for their “nice glow.” As a reminder, keep those cords off the ground to avoid tripping or electrical fires.

5. Let Nature Provide the Florals

Entertaining inside often means springing for a bouquet of fresh flowers or two. But there’s no need to set the picnic table with store-bought flowers or centerpieces. Instead, look to what’s already blooming in your backyard. Flowering trees or bushes, like hydrangeas or roses, add garden-like whimsy. If your outdoor space can’t accommodate planted foliage, pick up potted plants or flowers, like hibiscus, at your nearest garden center, and enjoy low-maintenance greenery all summer long.