Writer | Jeanine Matlow

Perfect Summer Parties

For many Michiganders, seasonal celebrations are currently in the works, from backyard barbecues and neighborhood potlucks to family reunions and other al fresco get-togethers. Whether you invite others to a simple picnic or an outdoor wedding, here are some tips to pull off the perfect summer party.  

Event planner Carolyn Hefner, who owns The China Closet in Beverly Hills, knows how to plan for these occasions, whether helping clients or hosting at home. For years, she and her husband did all of the cooking for their annual Fourth of July party until the guest list grew to 125. 

Professional food prep can be a game-changer. “Hiring a caterer is like a gift from God,” Hefner says. “Not only will your caterer help with the setup, a top-notch caterer will leave your home how they found it — clean and tidy.”

Party rentals can be cost-effective and eco-friendly. “You can rent anything,” she says. “If you have a party for 30 people, you might not have 30 forks and knives.” Hosting a brunch the next day makes rental costs even more reasonable. “Sometimes, people don’t think of adding another event,” Hefner adds. Valet parking can be another consideration when hosting a crowd.  

Hefner has been planning an outdoor baby shower for a client that will include essentials like a tent. “With Michigan weather, you never know what it’s going to be,” she says. Flooring can also make these settings more manageable. 

Other rental options include banquet tables that can be dressed with affordable linens and wood folding chairs with padded seats for added comfort. “Chairs can sink in the grass, so be careful what you drag out of your house,” Hefner says. 

When it comes to the menu, backyard barbecues can be a real crowd-pleaser. “It’s always great to grab fresh food hot off the grill,” she says. You can also fill in the gaps with popular options like food trucks. “For a late-night pool party last summer, a pizza maker came with a woodburning stove,” Hefner adds. 

Snack bags are easy to prepare, like the ones Hefner filled with homemade cookies and Chex Mix for a family reunion at a ranch in Montana to honor her late mother. The treats were labeled with custom logos representing the event and placed in baskets for guests to grab. She also gave them personalized sweatshirts with the same logo. “I knew when the sun went down, it would get chilly,” she says. 

Weeklong activities included trout fishing, horseback riding and hiking. “Everyone just really bonded,” Hefner says. “I had cousins who came that I hadn’t seen for years and we are almost inseparable now.”

Even seasoned entertainers can ask for assistance. “Most guests want to contribute somehow,” she says. “They can bring a bottle of wine or send flowers the day before so the host has time to set them up.” 

If relatives are known for certain dishes, delegate who makes family favorites, such as sour cream cake and jalapeno poppers. “When you know what people are good at, you can tap into their expertise,” Hefner says.

Nothing has to be extravagant. “It’s about getting together. It’s about the fellowship,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be expensive. You can make Rice Krispie Treats.” 

Music sets the tone for any celebration, whether it comes from an iPad with speakers or an acoustic guitar player. Individual baskets with snacks and activities from the dollar store keep kids entertained along with games like cornhole that can be customized with a college logo for a grad party. 

Conversation starters include photo boards that add a personal touch to family gatherings and themes, such as a western backyard barbecue with red bandanas as napkins and inexpensive cowboy hats for guests. “I love giving people costumes; they become characters,” Hefner says. 

Lastly, you can always look to the past for simple pleasures like badminton and a classic ice cream truck. “Summer parties should be fun and lighthearted,” she says.