The 1753 Italian expression ‘al fresco’ translates to ‘in the fresh air’ and outdoor living lifestyles embrace the health benefits of eating outside with the delights of “Al Fresco” dining.
It is interesting to note that both physical and mental health can be improved by eating outdoors. Stress reduction of lowered blood pressure and heart rate and less muscle tension, increase in vitamin D levels helping the immune system and the release of ‘good mood’ endorphins are all triggered by outside living, and food tastes better outdoors than indoors as all your senses are heightened when eating in the great ‘outdoors.’
Here are some tips to help you elevate your outdoor living entertainment experience in the following ways:
- ‘Chef up’ your food offerings and provide tasty delights and ensure food is safe to eat
- Have time to sit down and enjoy your guests’ company
- Provide a pleasurable seating and set up arrangement for your guests
- Keep the children entertained
Food and Food Safety, First and Foremost
We’ve all heard or even experienced the food poisoning or tummy upsets that can come from sunbaked mayonnaise potato salads, the unappealing sweating cheese board pass around, the fly buzzed cold cuts and lukewarm or undercooked chicken or hamburgers. Nobody wants to make their guests ill as a result of poor food safety practices at a backyard barbeque or family get together dinner. Here are a few simple rules to follow to help prevent bacterial food poisoning.
Bacteria will thrive in temperatures between 41° and 140° F. This is why you’ll hear chefs say, “Serve hot food hot and cold food cold.” Ensure that when food leaves the kitchen in any stage of preparation it is either on ice or if cooked kept on a heat source as the type of food dictates. Keep food out of direct sun and temperatures above 90°F warrant special provision for cooling and/or limited time outside. Protect food from flies and pesky flying insects with mesh covers.
Safe temperature when cooking meat is 165° F for chicken/turkey. Fish, pork, and beef (whether steaks or chops or roasts) to 145°F and ground beef/pork/lamb to 160°F. Use a thermometer to check the temperature before serving.
In Italy and other hot climate Mediterranean countries where al fresco dining is common, food is often served in multiple courses rather than all at once to ensure it is eaten quickly once set upon the table and not left out in a buffet style extravaganza for hours on end for people to pick over. This is a great idea as washing up can be completed as the meal progresses and dishes are cleared away regularly leaving the table clear of detritus and unappetizing half-finished plates and dishes of food that will attract wasps and other stinging or biting unwanted visitors.
Follow the 2-hour rule as a maximum time frame for leaving prepared foods outside and only 1 hour if the temperature is over 90°F.
The Grill Meister
Center stage for the outdoor dining production is often the grill. The variety of grills and outdoor kitchen set ups can be lavish and include everything from wood-fired pizza ovens to charcoal grills to high end gas cooktops, rotisseries and fridges safely ensconced from the weather under permanent cover of pavilions with drop down shutters.
Whatever outdoor cooking set up is available, the use of a grill or grate can add an appealing texture to the offerings. Increase flavor of the veggies or meats with the use of fresh herbs, spicy dry rubs and prevent veggies sticking to the grill by rubbing them with olive oil before placement. This will also help prevent firm texture veggies like zucchini, asparagus, eggplant, broccoli, peppers, and onions from drying out.
Prep In Advance and Enjoy More Time at the Table
Part of the obligation of hosting or throwing a party or event, or even spending time with immediate family dining al fresco, is the endless up and down from the table and walk to and fro to the kitchen.
Alleviate the number of journeys required to the fridge by keeping multiple coolers handy well-iced or plugged in if available to source beverages. A cooler (especially a large one with wheels like luggage) also makes a great transportation unit for prepared foods that can be plated in advance and delivered in one shot out to the diners. Investigate the hot and cold food savers that are available on the market. Many are glass, that are covered with a plastic lid and are pretty enough to go straight on the table for serving with lid removed. A quick tableside dressing with a garnish of fresh herbs or squeeze of lemon can add vibrance and freshness at the last minute.
Think outside the usual barbeque fare when offering dining delights. Consider healthy alternatives and add elegance to your fare with blinis dressed with smoked salmon and chives, or a seasonal summer peach cake made from grains such as polenta or quinoa. Many foods can be prepared days in advance or even weeks in advance set in the freezer until needed. When serving alcohol, it is always advisable to offer your guests a food source whether that be hors d’oeuvres with cocktails or dessert snacks with after dinner drinks.
Set the Scene
Making the table décor pretty and attractive is not hard and does not have to be expensive. Hanging outdoor lights stretched in rows across a pergola or trees in the garden, hurricane candles on the table or more modern LED lighting options, mix and match placemat color schemes with a variety of textures and designs all add pleasure to the outdoor dining experience. Mapping out the table landscape with colorful ceramics, rustic or elegant stemware and fabrics, and including different light sources can create an ambience that relaxes guests and offers a warm welcome.
Flowers from the garden can be plucked and placed in any style garden container or vase. Herb plants like oregano placed up and down the table offer a fragrance that guests will love and provide some protection from bug attraction to the table. Oregano plants placed on tables are widely used in Greece for the purpose of mitigating bug traffic around diners at tavernas up and down the country and across their beautiful islands.
Ensure the table is also set to be functional with everything in easy reach for every diner. Set multiple salt/pepper, serving cutlery options, stemware including water jugs and an ice bucket kept handy is always a good plan.
Don’t make the mistake of making guests feel uncomfortable by sitting them close together unless your visitors know each other well. Careful selection of the size of the chairs and the size and shape of the table is essential if the outdoor patio or level space is restricted. Elbow room for use of utensils is needed to eat. You don’t want to seat people so close together they can hear their neighbor swallowing.
It is important to allow sufficient room around the seating area of the table for guests to be served food and for them to leave the table without upsetting other guests with requests for moving chairs or squeezing by. For ease of movement armless chairs are excellent. A 36” space behind each chair is usually sufficient to allow both actions, with a distance of 24” between the center of one chair to another to facilitate companionship without feeling confined.
Obviously, family gatherings especially those that include children can be less constrained, and it can even be helpful to sit closer to young children to help them navigate their dining experience.
As a rule, round tables are best for conversation, narrow tables with bench seating offer intimacy for conversation and food sharing. If you are seating your guests at a rectangular or long table, try and place the conversationalists in the middle seats opposite each other, and the quieter guests at the end if you want to maximize the flow of conversation.
A Word About Glass
The use of throwaway cups and plates and cutlery for outdoor use does save on the washing up after the event, but it also does not elevate the taste or presentation of the food or drinks served.
Pool side use of glass stemware and china/ceramics should be carefully considered for the obvious reason of the chance of breakage occurring that could result in injury to bare feet of patrons around the pool or actual broken shards or pieces of glass or china entering the water itself.
Modern materials utilize innovative glass feel products that are guaranteed not to shatter or chip. These items offer a good compromise for use around the pool where it is wished to avoid the use of plastic, non-recyclable, or paper products.
Final Note: Keep the Kids Entertained
Multi-generational gatherings offer the very best type of meaningful memory making opportunities. Where young and old mix together, much pleasure can be derived from the outdoor living entertainment of watching the interaction between the two. However, it is not easy to keep kids’ high energy levels at bay for long periods, so distractions to occupy their inquiring minds and divert their high jinks is an essential part of making your event a happy time for all parties.
Consider providing age-appropriate board games, pool toys, football or sport activity like a quick and easy set up badminton court where the shuttlecock won’t hurt the windows, crafts, playset or other distractions in your backyard where kids can mingle and let off steam. If you have a brick wall or side of a garage or building handy it makes a great movie screen for projection from a tablet or other device with the simple hanging of a large white or light-colored sheet.
The addition of a kids’ table is often employed for younger children, although my British self always enjoyed being part of the main party and sitting with the grown-ups sampling the same food they did and enjoying their repartee during mealtimes. With permission to leave the table early, the adults were still able to enjoy their own conversations after the meal while my young compatriots and I would be allowed to run about the garden and play.
Memories are made today, and your backyard offers many opportunities to make plenty of good outdoor living experiences!