There’s something about summer that invites spontaneity: one last quick dip in the lake before dinner, an afternoon drive to nowhere in particular, spur-of-the-moment dinners taken outside in the garden. Some of the most memorable summer evenings start out this way: an impromptu dinner party, just because it’s too beautiful to call it a night. (Or because company drops by unexpectedly.)

How to pull off a festive dinner—to make sure there’s something to eat, and that it’s just a bit special—when there’s no time to run to the grocery store, the florist, or the farmer’s market? (Or, when you’d rather spend the hours before a party reading in a hammock, not running errands?) We asked Jill Donenfeld, a chef and cookbook writer who, as a co-founder of in-home chef company The Culinistas, knows a few things about throwing a party. Here are her easy last-minute tips.

1. Keep essentials on hand.

Expert Advice How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party  Photograph by Nicole Franzen from How to Crowd Source a Garden.
Above: Photograph by Nicole Franzen from How to Crowd Source a Garden.

To be ready on a moment’s notice—or, so that you can invite the gang over straight from the beach and avoid a stop at the grocery store—keep a few essentials on hand. An instant dinner? “Pasta, anchovies, tomato paste, lemons, walnuts,” Donenfeld says, almost all of which you can keep stocked in the pantry. “Finish with a simple salad: Bibb lettuce, mustard, honey, olive oil, lemon, raisins.” As for the bar, keep it stocked with the basics: “tequila, gin, vermouth, Pellegrino equals tequila and soda, gin martinis, and sparkling water.”

2. Shop the house.

Expert Advice How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party Photograph by Heikki Aho for Remodelista, from Steal This Look: Tiina’s Summer Tabletop Setting.
Above: Photograph by Heikki Aho for Remodelista, from Steal This Look: Tiina’s Summer Tabletop Setting.

Once dinner’s started, scour the house for what you already have: “Any textiles, bright and patterned, that can be used as a tablecloth or runner,” Donenfeld says. “Light all the candles you have and dim the lights.”

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