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How to host legendary long-weekend dinner parties outdoors

We all love a good backyard barbecue, but if you’re lucky enough to own a cottage, there’s nothing quite like entertaining guests in the natural splendor of cottage country. And for those extra-special occasions, there are plenty of cottage-specific ways to enhance the outdoor dinner-party experience. To help you plan your next gathering, we sat down with Jenn Currie and Sheila McNamee, who founded Top Shelf on Gull in Minden, Ontario, to help cottagers plan extraordinary social events at the cottage. Here’s how they make every outdoor occasion a memorable experience.

Be a stand-up host

If there’s one carved-in-stone rule of cottage entertaining, it’s that no one wants to cut steak while standing up—especially on a paper plate. Even if you have ample seating for all of your guests, the natural setting encourages a bit of wandering, so handheld food should be a mainstay on your menu. “Sliders are always a huge hit,” Jenn says. “They’re cottage-friendly, single serving, and they can have all sorts of different toppings to suit different tastes. The same goes for mini tacos.” She and Sheila also recommend shrimp and pineapple skewers as another handheld option.

Don’t bug out

Nothing bugs guests more than swarming mosquitoes, and since cottage country’s peak entertaining season coincides with mosquito season, evasive action is a must. If you’ve tried torches and candles and been underwhelmed, there’s a better way to give your guests an outdoor-dining experience without the bother of mosquitoes. Thermacell’s E-Series Rechargeable Mosquito Repellent creates a powerful zone of protection, so you and your guests can enjoy every bite without getting bitten. The compact design and stylish colors also help to fit it in any outdoor space! 

Elevate the classics

To impress your guests, you might be tempted to veer from the standard cottage fare, but the classics are classics for a reason. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Sheila and Jenn take an “elevated” approach to the classics. They often serve what they call an “elevated sausage roll,” using higher-quality meats and ingredients than the standard grocery-store versions, and they also serve a new take on the skewer. “We use salami, artichoke, tortellini, and local tomatoes,” Jenn says. 

Get cute with charcuterie

A loaded charcuterie board is always a crowd pleaser, but there’s no need to follow a template. For Sheila and Jenn, it’s the perfect place to get creative, and there’s no such thing as going overboard. “Anything goes for charcuterie,” Jenn says. “You can never go wrong with a crowded charcuterie board. Go beyond the standard salami and cheeses, and give your guests yummy dips, interesting nuts, and fruits like apricots to add sweetness. You can even throw a little chocolate in there.” But while you can mix up the ingredients, they recommend sticking with a natural wooden serving surface to complement the cottage setting.

Keep it social with stations

Don’t be the host who hoards all the food in the kitchen and breaks a sweat running back and forth to serve guests. To make things easier, set up stations, like a bar area or an apps table, and encourage guests to help themselves. “People like to serve themselves with drink stations,” Sheila says, “and that takes pressure off the host.” It also doesn’t have to be anything fancy. “At one event, we had a canoe filled with ice and drinks, and it was a huge hit.” The best part of using stations is that they encourage guests to mix and mingle. “Definitely have the bar in a different area to give guests a chance to wander and be social,” Jenn says. “If you have the bar in one area, an appetizer station in another, or a couple of food stations, you won’t have everybody crowding the same space.

Spread the party around

We all have our go-to spots at the cottage. Some of us love sunning on the dock or reading on the deck. For outdoor gatherings, try to incorporate as many of those spaces as possible—especially if you’re entertaining a crowd. “Multi-level arrangements are great for outdoor gatherings,” Sheila says. “You might have a dock space where people gather, and then a fire pit area and space on the deck. Going multi-level always makes it interesting.” Just be aware that, if you’re planning a soirée that extends into the night, each of those areas will need some extra lighting.

Take cover

You can plan your cottage menu, but you can’t plan your weekend weather. Unless you want everyone crowding into your cramped cottage kitchen, prepare for the unpredictable with a few covered areas where guests can take shelter in case it rains. “We’ve seen gatherings where it rained on and off, but we had a few covered spots to keep guests comfortable,” Sheila says. “You always have to have those contingencies set up if you’re entertaining outside.

Don’t get tripped up 

Sure, the food is the star when you’re entertaining guests, but taste and texture aren’t everything. In a natural landscape, you should also pay attention to how easy it is to transport whatever you’re serving. The roots, rocks, and winding pathways that give your cottage its rugged character can lead to some mishaps—not to mention the sliding screen doors and the dogs you might be stepping around. “Focus on foods that are easy to transport from the cottage to your dock, or from your cottage to the patio,” Sheila says. “You want something that will keep its form and not shift in case you get tripped up along the way.”

Get rid of glass

The glorious granite of the Canadian Shield is a crucial part of the cottage backdrop, but it’s also an entertaining hazard if you’re not choosy about your dishes. Broken glass is especially dangerous in an environment where flip-flops and bare feet are the norm. “If you’re hosting an outdoor party and there are a lot of rocks on your property, you don’t want anything breakable, like glass bottles or wine glasses,” Jenn says. “That’s just an accident waiting to happen.” 

Want to elevate your outdoor entertaining experiences and keep your guests happy? Create a mosquito protection zone with the Thermacell E-Series Rechargeable E55, available at Canadian Tire.