It's safe to say that we'll all be eating at home a lot more this summer, so it makes sense to put time into making your outdoor dining experience a good one - even if it is just for a select crew.
The key pieces to start with are, of course, your dining table and chairs. Patricia McGinnis, co-founder of Belfast design store Maven (wearemaven.co.uk), recommends putting practicality first. "You have to consider where you live and what kind of space you have," she says. "Do you have room to pack furniture away at the end of the summer, or will it be out all-year around? This will affect what finish you can go for."
Put the same care into picking outdoor pieces as indoor ones, she stresses, or you may buy something you'll regret. "If you know there's a good weekend coming up, it can be tempting to just go to a garden centre and pick up something cheap, even though it might be in a style that you would never dream of buying for inside your home," she says.
Not only does a considered approach mean you're more likely to reuse the pieces year after year, but it makes them easier to accessorise with products from inside your house. "I often bring out cushions or a sheepskin rug from inside out to the garden," says Patricia. "Just like with your indoor spaces, it's about being flexible, and letting things evolve organically instead of rushing out to buy everything at once."
Evaluate your space as it if were indoors, taking into account walls, floors and even a ceiling. Could the wall be painted, 'decorated' with climbing plants or brightened up with festoon lighting? Would an outdoor rug create a cosier feel? If you have a sunny spot, would a patio umbrella make a BBQ more comfortable? "People often overlook those elements when they're dressing an outdoor space," says professional stylist Orla Neligan of Cornershop Productions, who has been sharing video tips on styling your home on her Instagram page (@oneligan). "Outdoor rugs can do so much to lift an area, as can putting a little firepit outside, or staggering some potted plants and planters around your dining furniture." Pieces like this help create structure, and make sure your dining area doesn't feel like it's just 'floating' in your garden.
If you have a bar cart, Orla recommends setting it up outside too; it will add a festive feel, make it easy for people to help themselves to refreshments and remove clutter from the dining table.
Time to turn to the main attraction: the table and the food. Orla recommends building a sense of occasion with small style touches such as adding tablecloths or table runners, layering napkins over plates or wrapping a piece of ribbon around cutlery.
For a laid-back look, try mixing and matching dining chairs, popping candles in jam jars, and decorating with natural elements - sprigs of rosemary or eucalyptus, flowers from the garden or even pretty figs can help set the mood. "You can also go with more structured floral arrangements, alongside things like linen napkins, finer plates and gold cutlery for a more formal, high-end finish," says Orla.
Presenting food outdoors can be another challenge. Food stylist Sarah-Kim Watchorn (sarahkimwatchorn.com), who has worked with chefs Donal Skehan, Neven Maguire and cookbook author Roz Purcell, recommends a relaxed approach - it's less stress for you, and more fun for diners.
"Most people think that everything should be hot when you're serving food, but that definitely isn't the case," she says. "It's much better to serve your hot meat and veggies with cold accompaniments like salads and pestos. That's what I love most about summer eating - you get to eat little bits of everything."
And when lockdown lifts, remember: "Creating an environment where you have lots of different dishes brings people together and encourages them to move around, chat and pass dishes to each other, which is much nicer than being served individual plates," says Sarah.
Try to avoid disposable paper or plastic crockery; if you're worried about breakages, stick to using ceramics for serving platters that don't tend to leave the table much. Or you could invest in some pretty outdoor dinnerware, which is usually made out of hard-wearing melamine - high street brands like M&S and Ikea stock designs that are almost as pretty as the real deal.
Orla, however, is a fan of bringing out the good stuff, no matter how many people are at the table. "So many of us switch to plastic when outdoor dining, but making a table look beautiful and pretty adds so much to the atmosphere," she says. "Don't be afraid to use it - and outdoor dinner is an occasion and there's no reason why you shouldn't make it feel special."