The casual atmosphere of outdoor events makes them a hit with attendees. From weddings to company picnics, groups of all sizes love to take advantage of seasonal weather by moving events outside. And just like an event hosted indoors, food is sure to be the main conversation piece.
But before you jump into your menu planning, it is important to remember that serving food in the great outdoors has its own set of challenges. Prevention is the always best defense, which you don’t want to overlook the following list of outdoor food service essentials.
Focus on Food Storage
Most outdoor events require at least some off-site food preparation. This means you must account for proper storage on-site and keep your service times on schedule. Let’s say you plan to hold dinner service an hour into your event. You are going to need plenty of hot and cold storage to keep your food at the right temperature. A professional catering service will be able to accommodate this, but make sure you review all of the details with them in advance.
Beware of Hot Air
Your biggest challenge in the summer months will be insuring the cold food is actually served cold. Fruits, vegetables and dressings can turn inedible within minutes when exposed to the heat, but you can use banquet-quality chafers to protect against this. Most can be filled with ice and water, and their roll-down lids make it possible to setup your buffet lines in advance. Salad bowls can sit in mirror ice boxes for the same effect. When it comes to fruit and veggie trays, proceed with caution unless you have a creative way to keep them cool on the serving line.
Keep the Bugs Away
No one is going to forget the fly they found in their salad dressing so don’t let it happen at your event! Keep all food covered until service time – no exceptions. If plastic wrap doesn’t match the ambiance of the event then consider cloth napkins or china plates as covers. Another inexpensive and stylish option is to use food umbrellas. These standalone mesh mini-tents fit nicely over dishes and provide an adequate view of the entrées without having to remove them.
Control Condiment Chaos
To be honest, this one is more of a personal pet peeve as opposed to a widespread problem. In my experience the condiment table is always neglected at outdoor events. Without proper supervision it quickly becomes a ghastly mess of spills, insects and unsanitary conditions. I highly recommend individual serving packets of condiments to avoid the whole situation. If you must use bulk products then assign an attendant to keep the station clean and refreshed. The last person to receive food should expect the same quality as the first.
Keep Things Moving
One thing you don’t want guests doing on a hot summer day is waiting in a long line. So beyond the food quality issues, you’ll also need to think ahead about how to efficiently distribute meals to the guests. A single-sided buffet serves about 100 people in an hour. Expecting 400 guests? You should have two double-sided buffet lines ready for the dinner rush. Keeping your entrees, side dishes and dinnerware replenished on these lines will be a big task, so make sure your staff is on the ball.
The big takeaway here is that planning an outdoor event meal requires a bit more thought into food production and service. Even a simple cookout menu is going to require plenty of cold storage and precision timing. Ensuring your favorite summer treats are served at safe and appropriate temperatures will keep your guests focused on having fun!