Perfect picnic | Living the Country Life

Perfect picnic

Enjoying your country home should be a picnic, not work, says food stylist Jennifer Peterson.
One key to entertaining, says Jennifer Peterson, is stop working when guests arrive. Relax and enjoy your party!
The Peterson family of Ankeny, Iowa, includes Jennifer, Dennis, and daughters Ellissa, 3 (left), and Alena, 6.


When Dennis and Jennifer Peterson started saving for their first home, "There was no question where we wanted to live -- in the country," says Jennifer, a freelance food stylist. For three years they searched for the perfect place -- one with trees, privacy, close proximity to town, and a nice neighborhood of other acreages. They finally found their dream property on 2 acres north of Des Moines, Iowa, and built a home into the trees.

The first thing friends notice when they visit, says Jennifer, is the park-like yard. "You hardly notice we have neighbors," she says. "We can enjoy the breeze and afternoon shade anywhere, and the children have tons of room to play."

Jennifer loves to entertain outdoors. Sometimes she hangs strings of lanterns or streamers from the trees and creates an outdoor room. One year their daughter, Alena, 6, had a Happy Camper birthday party in the backyard, complete with a tent, scavenger hunt, camping foods, and an old-fashioned tug-of-war.

If the weather doesn't cooperate, they move to the back porch, which has floor-to-ceiling screens. "It's just like being outside, but without the bugs," she says.

The beauty around

Their yard is home to many types of wildlife. "To me that's what living the country life is all about," says Jennifer. "It's not changing our property into something else, but blending in and living in peace with the beauty around us." Most of their landscaping stock came from the Department of Natural Resources and from Dennis' home farm. "Since our yard was once woodland, I'd like it to stay that way," says Jennifer.

Last spring, after Dennis succeeded in removing a large stump in the front yard, they celebrated with a hot dog and marshmallow roast. "The kids remember their first real bonfire. Dennis remembers he conquered that stump! I remember the beautiful sunset," says Jennifer.

Make guests feel at home

As a food stylist, Jennifer's job is creating beautiful and often fancy food for photography (including the photos in this story). However, her style of entertaining at home is casual. "I want our guests to feel at home. I even ask their assistance sometimes, for instance, watching the ice cream maker or putting ice on the table."

She gathers flowers from around the yard for a casual centerpiece; an old watering can makes a good vase. Mason jars become fun water glasses.

"One very important party ingredient is music," says Jennifer. "It really helps set a mood and relaxes people."

Her final tip: "I have fun at my own parties. When the guests arrive, it's time to stop working and enjoy the occasion. That's when I focus on them and their needs and not on how things look."

Here are a few of Jennifer's favorite recipes for a country picnic in your yard. Enjoy!

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