Susan Spungen, author of "What's a Hostess To Do?" offered expert outdoor entertaining advice and tips. | Home Front

May 09, 2013

Susan Spungen, author of "What's a Hostess To Do?" will offer expert outdoor entertaining advice and tips. Spugen, a cook, food stylist, recipe developer, editor and author, has worked with Martha Stewart and helped style food for the recent films "Julie & Julia," It's Complicated," and "Eat, Pray, Love."

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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Delighted to have Susan Spungen on the chat today. I have read Susan's work for years and am excited about her new book "What's a Hostess to Do? 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining" (Artisan Books; $17.95.) A great Mother's Day gift idea paired with some cool melamine plates or citronella candles or outdoor lighting. Check out Susan's ideas for outdoor entertaining in my article today here. We've got a great Outdoor Entertaining issue today full of inspiration and a big photo gallery of products. Check it out here. Lots of ideas for hosting parties and table settings there, which is what we can talk about today with Susan. So let's begin. 

Hi Everyone-

Thanks so much for stopping by today! I'm looking forward to chatting with you!



I see so many good entertaining ideas in books and on the blogosphere. However, since my friends and I live in the suburbs, we are all scattered from each other. It's about 45 minutes for any of us to drive to see the others. This makes entertaining during the week a nightmare, both in terms of traffic and in terms of getting home in time to set up (and walk the dog), and getting people out the door (and in bed) early enough so that they're ready for the next day. On the other hand, weekends always seem so busy with house projects, errands, etc., that cramming in entertaining can be difficult. What's a hostess to do in order to plan an event that will be easy for others to attend and enjoy?

Finding the time can certainly be a challenge, but I think it is so worth it to get people together. How about a nice Sunday lunch, where people can linger, and traffic isn't such an issue? I find this kind of gatherings are very relaxed and don't cut into schedules too much.

Hi Susan - do you have any tricks for keeping ants/bugs away from an outdoor picnic? How about bugs away from a BBQ? Thanks!

It's tricky, but the best thing to do is to have a small table (there are some great, lightweight roll-up or folding tables) that can still be low to the ground (coffee table height), or even a cooler, and keep all the food off the ground. Also, pack your food in containers with snap-on lids to keep things covered when possible. This should cut down on ant and bug activity.

Do you have a go-to dessert to serve at outdoor parties? Maybe something that doesn't melt in the heat?

I love fruit crisps, and so does everyone else. This is the easiest way to make people swoon! I usually bake them earlier in the day, but sometimes I pop them in the oven just before we sit down for dinner. They travel well, and are fine at room temp for hours. I make batches of topping and keep them in the freezer. The easiest of all is blueberry or mixed berry since there is absolutely no prep involved-- just wash the berries and go!

With an small outdoor dinner party, how important is a seating arrangement vs an open seating plan? Do guests want to have a proper seat?

I think this all depends on the mood you want to strike, and even what you're serving. If it's burgers or ribs, or something really casual, I let people just sit wherever they want, maybe not even at the table.If I am serving something like grilled fish, I set the table and like guests to all sit down together.

Is there a theme party in existence that isn't cheesy? Do you personally ever throw them? Do you have an idea of a theme that might actually be ... classy? Or at least not hokey?

I do! I usually keep the theme to the food, and sometimes some minor decorations, or at least a color scheme. I've done Cinco De mayo parties, 4th of July parties, and Bastille Day Parties. French themed summer food,a nd Red, White and Blue deco, what could go wrong?

Susan, My friends and I are hosting a pink-themed party in June (long story). We want the cocktails to be pink as well. Do you have any recipes for light, refreshing and PINK summer cocktails?! Thanks.

I like pink drinks too! I love to do a Sangria with Rose wine and pink fruit, like white peaches, plums, cherries, and raspberries. It's easy to mix up pitchers of it. I did a recipe last summer for Bon Appetit. If you search Epicurious with my name, you will find it. It has St. Germain in it, which I love!

Is there an efficient alternative to paper plates? They seem so tacky.

Yes. Although there are wonderful disposable plates available today in gorgeous tasteful patterns such as those by Caspari. Otherwise, go with unbreakable melamine designs that now look exactly like Italian or French pottery. Check out this photo gallery for ideas.  

What's the best way to keep cold dishes chilled? What's a good rule of thumb for how long things can be left out?

If you're traveling with the food, keep them in coolers with ice packs which will keep things ice cold for a long time, so starting cold is a good idea. Keeping things in ceramic bowls rather than plastic helps too, and keep the bowl in the fridge, filled, to really chill it down before serving. Technically, food can sit out for 6 hours before spoiling, but I wouldn't go that long, especially in hot weather. More like a couple of hours.

Do guests need menu cards for dinner? Or can I just bring out the food that is being served?

Outdoors no menu cards are expected! These days people do have a lot of food allergies and dietary restrictions. If you know all your guests well, this isn't as much of a concern. If this is a group of people you haven't entertained before, a menu board or menu cards can help people determine if they can eat something safely. Sometimes at buffets, hosts put out cards identifying the foods and if appropriate labeling them gluten-free or nut-free or whatever. 

My daughter is getting married this August and I'd like to host her bridal shower at our home. We live in upstate New York which can be pretty unpredictable, weather-wise, so I'll plan on it being mainly indoors, to be safe. I err on the side of rustic, rather than delicate, but I'd love to surprise her with a beautiful spread - to prove her mom can do these things, you know? Can you recommend an elegant dish or two to base a menu around? The crowd will be around 20 people.

I have a great recipe in my first book, Recipes, that is perfect for this. It's a version of Vitello Tonnato, but made with pork. It can also be made with turkey. It is sliced cold meat in a tuna sauce (I know it sounds odd, but it is absolutely delicious.). The beauty is, it can be made completely ahead of time and chilled until serving time. It looks very elegant, and it's light too.

Can you recommend some stylish ways to keep an evening outdoor picnic lit?

I love candles in big glass hurricanes (so they don't blow out) and citronella torches all around. They throw off a lot of light, and it's like having giant candles- what's better than candlelight? The bonus is they help keep bugs away.

What's the most lady-like way to eat--and/or serve--watermelon?

That's a good question! How about cutting into bite size chunks and serving with toothpicks?

Hi Susan! My friends and I are heading to our share in Fire Island next weekend, and we always try to eat dinner together as a house after Tea. For whatever reason, it's become tradition to make a turkey lasagna for our first weekend out, but this year, one of our guests happens to be allergic to poultry. We think a beef lasagna will be too heavy, especially in swimsuit season ;-) Any ideas for a light alternative that will still accommodate our poultry-averse guest? Thank you! Andrew

Hi Andrew- How about going completely vegetarian? I've been leaving meat out of my cooking more and more. Use spinach or other vegeatbles to fill it out. You could even use a white bean puree which will add creaminess and protien without being unhealthy.

Two questions: Can the Big Green Egg organic charcoal be used in any charcoal grill? We have a very small fence-enclosed patio area. Can you suggest the best type of furniture to use in a small area, possibly folding so that it also doesn't take much storage space. We could only accommodate about 6 people total. Thank you!

I am pretty sure you can use the BGE charcoal with any grill- it's just a very good hardwood charcoal. I think you have answered your own question about furniture. A small round table will probably work best. Carte and Barrel has some really cute folding chairs right now in bright colors based on Parisian park chairs. They fold up really flat.

What are the best extra chairs to buy for outdoor entertaining?

I'm planning on buying these from Crate and Barrel for my new house- they are indestructable and fold up really small.

What are your best tips for entertaining on a budget?

Well first of all, make a budget. Know how much you can spend, and then start carefully planning so your plans stay in line with your budget. There are lots of dishes that can feed a lot of people for not much money. Try making a big paella- you can go as expensive or cheap as you want with the ingredients you add, and it will still be great! Don't overdo it!

What are your favorite grilling recipes? Also, how do you serve ice cream outdoors when it is really hot?

I grill everything in the summer- and I love it! Some favorites are butterlied leg of lamb, large prawns, or skirt steak. I have had kids churn ice cream at my 4th of July party, and they just eat it like soft serve as soon as it's done- they love it! Otherwise, get yourself some dry ice to keep it cold if you really want to serve ice cream

Do you use evite or paperless post for your invitations?

Yes. I am a huge fan of for online correspondence invitations. They have gorgeous invites you can design yourself online (it is incredibly easy, trust me) and they are sent out immediately through email. Most cost just cents to send. (Some are even free.) You can whip one up for any occasion in a few minutes and keep an address book on file with them so it's easy to send them. I just sent an invitation for my cat's 19th birthday using their image of a sleek black cat wearing a birthday hat and a pearl necklace. I have sent invitations for Thanksgiving dinner, birthday parties and just impromptu gatherings. There are lots appropriate for a backyard dinner party. It makes the whole event seem special. Check out their Oscar de la Renta collection that just debuted this week. Have any of you used this? 

Susan--What's your go-to menu (munchies, entree/sides, dessert) for a late-afternoon backyard party, where both kids and their parents will be in attendance? (Thinking early for Memorial Day weekend....)

I usually do Burgers and Dogs for Memorial Day BBQ's- everyone loves it. I usually make some nicer sides, like pretty salads and an array of condiments to dress it up a a little. I think it's a great way to kick off the season!

When I host outside parties in summer, I find that most of my guests experience some pain and suffering due to their allergies. Any suggestions on how to handle?

I know what you mean. I would definitely make it a point to tell people when you invite them that the party is going to be outdoors. Those who are allergy prone should know to take a Claritan or something and also bring a sweater and consider wearing long pants to help keep mosquito bites down! The other thing you might do is to have either drinks or dessert indoors to cut down on the time in the pollen zone. 

I'm over the Mojito at this point. For years I've made them at family gatherings: and I'm always covered in lime bits and sticky with sugar after making them with a mortar and pestle, to order. Enough! What are your favorite summer cocktails? Anything that's particularly impressive without needing too many ingredients?

My current favorite is the Aperol Spritz.It's just Prosecco, Aperol Liqueur, seltzer, and an orange slice. It can be served up or on the rocks (my preference). Looks pretty, and so refreshing!

Can you recommend some outdoor games for kids to play? I have a small backyard, and don't want balls and frisbees flying at the adults :)

How about Croquet or Bocce? Kids love to try their hands at these games, and the balls stay on the ground.

We're throwing a large backyard party next month and will need to set up tables in the grass as our patio only seats about half the guests. Any suggestions on how to keep the tables and chairs from sinking into the dirt?

This is a tough one. For the tables, you can use little scaps of plywood under the feet of the table to keep them from sinking in, but that's harder with chairs since they need to move around. If it hasn't rained, usually the ground is firm enough to keep chairs from sinking in, but try to use chairs with larger feet which should help.

DC is really hot and humid and buggy in the summer. I've sometimes gone to the trouble of doing a beautiful outdoor table and buffet, but all my guests want to do is sit around in my AC!!! How do you deal with that?

I have an idea for you- have you heard of these fans that put out a cool mist which cools the ambient temperature outside? When I was in Rome shooting Eat,Pray,Love a few summers ago, I noticed all the outdoor cafe's use them to make it comfortable to sit outside and dine. There are a lot available at a decent price- here's one

I always have a hard time finding the balence of enough choices to make everyone happy, and overcomplicating. for example drinks - cocktails, beer, wine plus how many non-alcoholic options (assuming no kids). do you have any guiding principles?

I sometime make a big vat of lemonade, and serve vodka on the side, so guests can just add it if they want it. I always used to buy beer and no one ever drank it, so now I just stick to wine.

Have you used outdoor rugs on your patio anyone? How clean do they really stay even if you hose them?

I haven't used them, and I do think it would bother me if they didn't look clean. More trouble that they're worth?

Hello Jura, I'm finishing a basement and am looking for paint color suggestions. I'd like to do a light yellow in the family area, and a grey in the bathroom. Both areas will have little natural light and fairly low ceilings. The bathroom will have white subway tile in the tub area and a white matte penny tile on the floor. I'd also like a suggestion for a trim and ceiling color that would work in all areas. Thank you.

I like Benjamin Moore's Iceberg gray for the bathroom. It would look nice with the tile. For a light yellow, what about Farrow & Ball's Dayroom Yellow or Benjamin Moore's Windham Cream or Valspar's Homestead Resort Tea Room Cream. Simply White by Benjamin Moore is a nice trim color. 

What are some good cocktails you can make in large batches ahead of time? (So as not to be a bartender at your own event.) And how would you recommend serving them? (Preferably a way that keeps out pesky bugs!)

I think Sangria is a great option, and looks beautiful with all of the fruit floating in it. Here's a recipe. Stone-Fruit Sangria

16 servings Stone-fruit purée gives this beautifully colored sangria an intensely flavored base that’s reinforced with juicy sliced fruit. Choose any combination of the ripest, most fragrant stone fruit (if, say, nectarines aren’t looking great, swap in good-looking apricots). Chill the sangria before serving; the flavor will improve the longer it sits—up to two days.

fruit Purée 1 apricot
1 nectarine

  1. 1  small peach

  2. 2  Tbsp. fresh lemon juice


2 750-ml bottles chilled dry rosé

(such as Côtes de Provence)
2 cups chilled elderflower liqueur

(such as St-germain)
1⁄2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise

3 plums or pluots 2 nectarines
2 apricots

1 peach
20 fresh cherries

Sparkling water

fruit Purée Peel stone fruit (see page 84). Halve, pit, and coarsely chop.

Place chopped fruit in a mini-processor or blender; add lemon juice. Purée until smooth. Transfer to a large pitcher or jar.

sangria Add rosé and elderflower liqueur to fruit purée in pitcher; scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Halve and pit all stone fruit. Cut fruit, except cherries, into 1/2" wedges. Add all fruit to pitcher. Chill for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.

Fill glasses with ice; pour in sangria and fruit to fill glasses 2/3 full. Top with sparkling water. Stir and serve. 

Hi. I inherited my grandmother's china and I love it. Problem is that I live in a small house with no room for a china cabinet (nor is that really my style). I'd love to display some of the pieces in a smaller cabinet I have, but would that be weird? And if not, how would I do it to make it look nice? Thanks!

Why would that be weird? As long as it it looks nice, why not leave it where you can see it if it makes you happy? Another option is to get plate hooks, and hang a few on the wall in your dining room.

Hello Jura, Can you offer advise on how to lighten a Family Room with dark wood furniture (coffee table, console, armoire, ect.), a dark leather sofa and blue/ white area rug? Do I need to first change the paint color or lighting? What's a good neutral paint? Thanks.

Would you want to add another color besides the blue? Blue and white is a nice color scheme in itself with the dark furniture. You might want to consider some blue and white pillows and maybe a blue bowl or tray on your coffee table. Put a stack of books on your table and add a topiary or orchid in a blue and white pot. If you want to add another color, pale yellow might be nice and you could do the walls in something like Valspar's Evening Sun. 

Any ideas for websites that sell affordable photographs, besides Etsy and 20 x 200 (which is currently down)? Thanks!

Any ideas out there?

I'm helping my mother in law repaint her circa 1971 bathroom. The current tile must stay for now. It is a yellow color. I was thinking gray to go with it. Any suggestions for a particular gray or should we go with a different color altogether? Thanks.

I think yellow and gray make a nice combo. You are nice to help your mother in law with this. Martha Stewart's Home Depot line of paints has several nice grays including Heavy Goose, Nimbus Cloud or Driftwood Gray.

Hello, In the galley showing your ideas (wonderful) there is a table I am try to find. It is image 3 in the gallery (just before the Crate & Barrel table. Any idea on where to find it? Thanks

Hi there- that was my old table from Crate and Barrel. They don't make this line any more- it was called Trovata, but Regatta is very similar. I gave this set to my Mother-in-law, and it looks brand-new again after powerwashing, and it is 12 years old- outside the whole time! Their teak is very good.

I'm in a church committee that is responsible for a "supper on the lawn." This will be approx 100 people. What are some fun themes or foods for 100? I expect other groups will have the hotdogs/burgers/wings/ type. Anything creative?

Sorry- great question, but not enough time to answer!

Wow. I picked up some great ideas here today from Susan and I'm sure you did too. Maybe I'll have a  Memorial Day barbecue. Fun to hear from all of you and thanks so much Susan. You gave us a lot of wonderful inspiration. 

Thanks so much for everyone who was here with us today. It was great fun to answer your questions, and hope that I've offered some ideas for effortless summer entertaining. I wish all of you a beautiful summer!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Susan Spungen
Susan Spungen is a cook, food stylist, recipe developer, editor, and author. She was the culinary consultant and food stylist on the feature films "Julie & Julia," "It's Complicated," "Eat, Pray, Love," and more. Spungen served as the founding food editor of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and today her work appears frequently in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and More magazines. Her latest book, "What's a Hostess To Do? 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining, Including 121 Recipes for Spectacular Party Food," was published by Artisan Books in May 2013. She lives in New York City.
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