If you've been thinking all summer that you need to have your best friends, your helpful neighbors or a few favorite co-workers over for dinner, better pick up the phone and invite them. Summer's almost gone. There are only a few more lazy weekends until the traffic gets bad and schedules get crowded again.
To get you started, we asked three entertaining experts for tips. Their strategy: Use a 1-2-3 menu. That means a three-course menu where the cook can make one, two or all three dishes, filling in with store-bought as necessary.
As Susan Spungen, former editorial director of food and entertaining for Martha Stewart Living magazine, suggests, "Focus on making the main course. Then buy some nice lettuces and cheese for a second course. For dessert, no one ever complains about ice cream."
If a homemade dessert is your specialty, focus on that, says cookbook author Pam Anderson. Fill out the menu with fresh vegetables from the farmers market for a simple side dish and let the entree be takeout ribs or rotisserie chicken. "Keep it simple. People will just be happy you're feeding them," she says.
Oh, and don't hesitate to let people help a little with the meal. Grilling guru Steven Raichlen offers chocolate chip or shortbread cookies, marshmallows and imported chocolate for guests to make their own grown-up S'Mores for dessert.
Expert: Pam Anderson.
Why We Asked Her: She has a new book due out in September called "Perfect Recipes for Having People Over" (Houghton Mifflin) that's full of great ideas for get-togethers small and large. She's also a woman who thinks that the perfect vacation is renting a house somewhere (this year it was London to be near her daughter) and then cooking all week for friends and family.
Biggest disaster: Out-of-town guests arrived two hours early, plus she had planned food for eight and there were nine. "I just opened another bottle of wine, put out more snacks and got everyone in the kitchen to help out. It was a real lesson in going with the flow instead of getting all uptight."
Best tip: Set the table early. That way, if guests arrive early or before you're ready, they'll see the beautiful table and think you must have everything under control.
What to serve picky guests: Make-your-own food, like pizza. "I pre-bake pizza crusts with sauce, then offer lots of different toppings for guests to choose from."
Suggested 1-2-3 menu: Mixed Grill With Tandoori Flavorings, Couscous with Chickpeas and Carrots, strawberry ice cream with berries.
Expert: Steven Raichlen.
Why We Asked Him: Cookbook author Raichlen is pretty much the go-to guy when it comes to grilling, but he also entertains frequently so he can try out his collection of grills.
Best tip: Give people something warm to eat as soon as they arrive. His favorite is garlic bread done on the grill. It's easy, delicious and the aroma is wonderful. Have pitchers of sangria or Singapore Slings ready.
Most recent success: A dinner party where each table had a hibachi so guests could grill their own skewers of meat. He put barbecue sauce in squeeze bottles at every table.
What to serve picky guests: A variety. "Grill two entrees, like chicken and fish," he says, so guests have a choice. Add lots of grilled vegetables and potatoes for vegetarians.
What's more important, the entree or the dessert?: The entree, he thinks. "It's the heart and soul of the meal."
Suggested 1-2-3 menu: Tiki Beef Kebabs, grilled eggplant, S'Mores.
Expert: Susan Spungen.
Why We Asked Her: For 12 years she was editorial director for food and entertaining at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She also writes on entertaining for the Oprah magazine O At Home. She has a cookbook coming out in November called "Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook" (Morrow) that has generated a lot of buzz.
Best tip: Go for maximum visual impact. Use beautiful dishes, a favorite color or food as a centerpiece (huge bowls of strawberries or different-colored tomatoes). Even if the food is simple, serve it with flair. "It's something I learned from Martha herself. Dishes flatter food the way clothing flatters a person."
Best tip No. 2: "People love choices." A big display of a wide variety of breads lends drama to a simple sandwich buffet. If you're grilling sausages, serve a variety of mustards with little spoons in each jar. A large selection of them adds impact.
Easiest dessert: Grill slices of store-bought poundcake and cut them into sticks. Place in a wine goblet, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, top with raspberry puree and fresh whole raspberries.
Suggested 1-2-3 menu: Barbecue chicken (your own or takeout), assorted grilled summer vegetables, poundcake with ice cream and berries.
or, since the couscous is so simple, make a second dish.* Tiki beef kebabs grill quickly and are just the thing for a casual, late-summer get-together.