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Easy Dining Al Fresco: Make Any Meal a Special Occasion

Eating outside in nice weather is one of life’s simple pleasures, so why not do it more often? With a little advance planning and some fresh, easy recipes, you can enjoy a delightful dinner on your porch or patio with very little effort, even in the middle of a busy week. Think fresh salad, a loaf of good bread and a refreshing beverage. Here’s how to make it happen:
Set the Scene
“Start the summer with a few minor preparations, and you’ll be set to gather friends and family at a moment’s notice,” says Matthew Mead, author of Matthew Mead’s Backyard Style.
Mead suggests adding semipermanent ambiance to your yard by stringing lights in trees or in a standing potted plant. If your patio table is in a covered area, you can keep paper lanterns hanging above it. Have freestanding lanterns in wood or metal at the ready to light the edges of your patio or your deck steps, and keep citronella candles handy to ward off bugs. 
Invest in a pretty piece of oilcloth to dress up the table. This specially treated water-resistant fabric comes in solid colors and prints, such as toile and gingham. It’s also easy to clean. “Fear not if the weather turns rainy; you just wipe it off,” Mead says. But don’t bother stocking up on plastic or disposable dinnerware. Make your outdoor meal truly chic by setting your table with cloth napkins and real china, flatware and glasses.
For a perpetual centerpiece, keep a grouping of potted succulents on your patio table. “They need very little watering, are interesting conversation pieces and look dynamite intermixed with votive candles,” Mead explains.For “happy hour at a moment’s notice,” create a bar area with a stainless steel rolling cart, a stainless steel ice bucket and a wicker bottle basket to tote bottles back and forth from your kitchen. 
What to Serve
Fare for an outdoor meal is best kept simple, fresh and light. Salads, chilled soups and other dishes meant to be served cold or at room temperature are ideal for outdoor eating. Grilling is a perennial option.
Try to make what you can ahead of time so you aren’t rushing around between the kitchen and your outdoor space. “Dishes that can be prepared in advance are your friends for effortless weeknight dining,” says Carla Kelly, author of Vegan Al Fresco: Happy, Healthy Recipes for Picnics, Barbecues & Outdoor Dining. “Something as simple as marinating mushrooms (or tofu!) the night before you want to serve them cuts down on preparation time. And if you are cooking potatoes one night, plan to cook extra to make a potato salad the next.” Spend some extra time on the weekend chopping and preparing vegetables, too, and you’ll be able to throw together a salad at a moment’s notice.
Keep beverages light and refreshing. Kelly likes to use frozen fruit in place of ice cubes in plain water or seltzer. You can also spice up your drink by freezing fresh herbs, such as mint or verbena, in ice cubes.
For dessert, “simple is often the best,” says Kelly. She suggests fresh, seasonal fruit with ice cream or sorbet.
Try these recipes for simple weeknight dining al fresco:

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