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How to Make Any Outdoor Meal a Bug-Free Zone with 8 Natural Tips

July  3, 2018

Dining outdoors feels like the greatest, most complete way to celebrate summer. Platters of cold salads and grilled meats are complemented by warm breezes and cans of sweating beer; music from the neighbor’s yard or stoop or picnic blanket adds to the soundtrack of clinking forks and chitchat and laughter; the vibe is easy and relaxed, and the party can continue long after the last s’mores have been eaten.

But also: ants crawling and mosquitos biting and flies buzzing and wasps stinging. You set up a meal outside, they’ll RSVP, “Yes...and can I get a plus one?” So rude. With all due respect to the insects of the world (thank you for keeping our ecosystem in balance, we know it’s no small task), scram. Get out of the pasta salad, stay away from the punch, and no biting.

To help you eat outside without constantly being bugged by bugs, here are eight natural ways to make any outdoor meal a bug-free zone.

Tabletop Techniques

1. Nothing but Net

The ideal summer setup for keeping flying bugs out of the party is a fully tented canopy of mosquito netting—it’s breathable, beautiful, and keeps bugs on one side, and you and your snacks on the other. It’s also totally impractical...or is it? Food52 partnered with Jennifer Zamudio of Dot & Army to create the perfect tabletop net food covers. Not only are they adorable in their gingham borders, but they’ve got weighted corners so the net won’t fly away and the flies won’t get your meal.

2. Put a Lid on It

Covering dishes with a lid is like shutting the door on bugs. They may come knocking, but they won’t get in. The low-tech version of this can be accomplished with plastic wrap or foil, or by using lidded bowls as serving dishes. The fancy-pants version can be accomplished with elastic-banded cotton bowl covers, silicone lids that’ll cover dishes of all sizes, and glass carafes with lids that clamp on.

3. Out of Sight, Out of Mind

In all likelihood, a punch bowl looks like a very inviting swimming pool for most bugs. (Sure, they drown once they enter, but it’s a sweet, boozy death.) But out of sight, out of mind. Keep your batch cocktails or cold drinks in an enamel dispenser and the bugs won’t even know it’s there.

Up in the Air

4. Smoke ‘Em Out

Flying bugs don’t like smoke. No one is quite sure why: Maybe it makes them think there’s danger so they stay away, or maybe it confuses them so they buzz off. In any case, smoke is a good way to keep the air clear of bugs...even if the air won’t necessarily be clear.

5. Hella Citronella

While citronella may not be nearly as effective as chemical mosquito-killing and -repelling solutions, the lemongrass cousin is still a good way to keep the bites at bay. A candle can only release so much mosquito-deterring oil into the air, which is why this incense-style hanging coil is brilliant. It burns a thick coil of citronella continuously, perfuming your party, warding off the buzz for hours, and looking very cool in the process.

6. Orange You Glad You Saved Those Peels?

Things mosquitoes love: your blood. Things mosquitoes hate: citrus peels. Save the peels from your lemonade and scatter them on your tabletop for a natural, rustic centerpiece that does double duty (ants don’t like ‘em either). You can also rub them on your skin, which’ll make you smell zesty fresh and leave you bite-free. (If you do happen to get any bites, remember that lemon and lime juice work wonders on the welts, numbing them so you won’t scratch.)

The Functional Garden

7. Get in Mint Condition

Mint and its pal catnip keep away a bevy of bugs, from wasps to beetles and ants. Growing these plants is a great way to get their oils in the air, but you can also soak cotton balls in peppermint oil (and string them into a garland if you’re feeling crafty). Another benefit of growing catnip is that cats loooove the stuff, and watching a cat try and catch a fly is hours of entertainment in itself.

8. Lay it Up in Lavender

Lavender is beautiful, it’s aromatic, it’s romantic, and it repels spiders, moths, and even mosquitoes. Plant it in your garden, place it in pitchers on your table, wear it on your skin; it’ll all make you feel like your living your best summer life in the South of France, sans bugs.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“A simple and cheap solution was to buy decorative sheer cloths (in various colors to match each party) to lay on top of the entire buffet send service table. This worked wonders!!! ”
— Marie C.

When all else fails, get yourself a fly swatter.

Flies Do Not Like Citrus

What do you do to keep the bugs away from your outdoor parties? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • allysahn
  • Marie Chung Fimbres
    Marie Chung Fimbres
  • Beth Grierson
    Beth Grierson
  • ELLE
  • Sarah Whitman-Salkin
    Sarah Whitman-Salkin


allysahn July 8, 2018
A block of dry ice at the opposite end of the yard will attract mosquitoes.
Sarah W. July 8, 2018
Marie C. July 8, 2018
A simple and cheap solution was to buy decorative sheer cloths (in various colors to match each party) to lay on top of the entire buffet send service table. This worked wonders!!!
Sarah W. July 8, 2018
Yes, a great solution! If you're DIY-ing a tabletop net, you could also buy some small magnets and affix them to the corners of the net so that the cloth won't blow away.
Beth G. July 3, 2018
Electric fans. Mosquitoes in particular are relatively weak fliers, so a couple of oscillating fans will blow them away.
Sarah W. July 3, 2018
That's a great idea!
ELLE July 3, 2018
Too many nets, lids, repellents............
We eat indoors.
Sarah W. July 3, 2018
A simple and sensible solution!