How to Host a Backyard BBQ
Ever wondered how to throw an amazing backyard BBQ, the kind everyone talks about for a long time afterwards? We got you.
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Grilled Orange and Smoked Paprika Brined Pork Chops with Basil Chimichurri; photograph by Brittany Conerly
If the BBQ’s a'rockin’, please come a knockin’.
A backyard BBQ is the nap dress of the entertaining world: It’s breezy, festive, and looks great, but the truth is it’s as comfortable as your favorite pajamas. That’s because the pressure is off when you throw a BBQ: There’s no requirement for uptight attire, formal manners, or fussy food — everyone gets to relax, connect, and dig in to a meal that’s truly delicious.
So grab your sandals and some paper napkins and get ready to party? Well, there’s still some planning, arranging, and food preparation involved before you throw — and actually get to enjoy — one of the lowest-stress shindigs of your entertaining career. Here’s how.
Jump ahead to:
How do you plan a backyard BBQ? >>
How much BBQ should I serve per person? >>
Delicious make-ahead dishes >>
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How do you plan a backyard BBQ?
It takes a little planning to entertain outdoors, but it’s worth it to hear the happy buzz of friends and family having fun together. Follow these backyard BBQ ideas for a totally fun fete.
Tip 1: Maximize your outdoor space
Since your guests have the pleasure of being outside, make sure there’s shaded space to sit and enjoy the food, and space to play a game (more on that below) or stand around and chat. If you don’t have enough chairs for everyone, lay some blankets out and encourage impromptu picnics.
Investing in a good cooler can make entertaining easier (make sure not to put it right next to the grill, and place a trash can nearby), but a bucket or two filled with ice also gets the job done and looks inviting. And if you plan to have the music on blast, it can be nice to offer a small circle of chairs or a blanket in a quieter area for those looking to have a chat or chill out.
Tip 2: Don't make the entire BBQ party menu from scratch
This ain’t no fancy Thanksgiving feast full of in-laws judging your gravy skills — no one expects perfectly executed, 5-star food in someone’s backyard. Remember: You’re supposed to have fun, too! It’s good to have one homemade dish to grill (BBQ is the centerpiece of the party) and one homemade side. You can’t go wrong with the BBQ party food ideas below — or dessert if you’d rather. Purchase high quality sides or ask friends to bring a dish to round out the menu.
Summer fruit is a glorious treat; put out bowls of ruby red cherries or strawberries when guests arrive (with a smaller bowl for pits and stems). Chips and purchased salsa are easy to serve and can be refreshing on a hot day. Feel free to end the meal with a variety of popsicles and ice cream bars, or a bowl of sliced watermelon.
Tip 3: Put out trash and recycling cans that are easy to find
Avoid an ugly pile of used plates and trash; most folks are happy to clean up after themselves if it’s obvious where trash goes. It makes cleanup afterwards much easier, too.
Tip 4: Ask for help!
The morning of a backyard BBQ party can be hectic, but the good news is that for such an informal affair it’s easy for close friends and family to stop by the store to pick up whatever you’ve forgotten. Here are items I consistently forget: enough bags of ice for drinks and the cooler; lettuce or tomato for burgers; enough disposable/compostable cutlery for everyone (where do all those knives go?); and relish, even though I love it.
Tip 5: Keep it simple, sassy (K.I.S.S.)
Search your streaming service for “Backyard BBQ” playlists and prop up a speaker and let it rip. No need to go crazy on BBQ party decorations: Place a few flags across the yard on the 4th of July, or pick up a few pots of blooming flowers and put one on each table. Summer is a time for bright colors, but make it easy: Pick one for your party and get the napkins, cups, or disposable plates in that color, and then buy everything else in white or another neutral color. And since you’re outside, have one or two fun things to do: a few frisbees or nerf footballs, a handful of water pistols or a splash pad helps everyone cool off on a hot day, a soccer ball or whiffle ball and bat makes for an easy half-yard game, and if you have a corn hole board, now is the time to bring it out.
For an easy BBQ party menu, please note: While everyone loves a burger, to do them right requires a lot of accoutrements. They need buns, cheese choices, and a wide selection of toppings: lettuce leaves, sliced tomato, onions of some sort, ketchup, mustard, mayo, and relish — and those are just the basics! What about avocado, or bacon, or maybe grilled mushrooms?
Compare this to steak, which once off the grill, usually only requires a few minutes to rest before slicing, and then perhaps salt and pepper. If this is your first BBQ, or if you’ve already got a meaty main on the menu, you have our express permission to skip the burgers if you want. Instead, embrace this easy BBQ party food idea: Grill up some sausages and hot dogs instead. All you’ll need is buns and a few condiments you grabbed out of the fridge. Everyone will still have a great time.
How much BBQ should I serve per person?
Figuring out how much food to make and serve can be one of the more intimidating parts of planning a gathering, but this is a time that all those word problems from math class can be useful. Each pound of meat will serve about three or four people, depending on whether your guests are heartier eaters or there will be some smaller folks (like kids) on the guest list.
Likewise, each pound of bone-in chicken will serve about two people, but keep in mind these amounts can be affected by how many side dishes you offer. If it’s a light salad, bowl of chips, and some delicious BBQ on the grill, you may need to have a bit more meat on offer. Conversely, the more side dishes on the table, the less meat your guests are likely to eat.
Note: It’s possible to be a generous host without breaking the bank, that is, if you’re smart about the order you follow when grilling up your BBQ party food. If you’re trying to host a more affordable backyard BBQ party, grill lower-cost foods like hot dogs, sausages, and vegetables first, and then throw the chicken, pork chops, and steak on the grill.
What do I serve at a BBQ?
When it comes to beverages, know your guests. If the plan is a Sunday Funday with lots of casual day-drinking, seek out fizzy beverages with a lower ABV so no one falls into the grill before you’re done cooking; if there will be kids or non-drinking folks in attendance, have plenty of fun juice drinks and flavored seltzers on hand, and maybe a bowl of cut citrus wedges to squeeze in for a fresh pop of flavor. But regardless of who shows up, make sure to have plenty of water on hand. Encourage an outgoing small child to offer chilled bottles of water to guests, or fill a pitcher and add a few fruit slices to make it extra special. Heat stroke never made a party better! Be sure to put a bowl of water out for any furry guests, as well.
Whenever you have people coming over to eat, you’ll get to spend more time with your guests and have more fun if you don’t feel like a caterer toiling away in the back at your own party. How do you accomplish this feat? By serving as many made-ahead dishes as you can — or at least getting as much of the prep done as possible before the first guest arrives.
When you’re hosting a backyard BBQ it’s a little different: You’re grilling, but because you’ll be outside with everyone else, the socializing doesn’t have to stop. If you follow this guide to put together an easy BBQ party menu, it’s possible to have a great time in your own backyard with a balance of dishes that can be made ahead and/or served at any temperature, and a few grilled dishes that are easy to get right on the grill, deliver great flavor, and feed a crowd with ease.
Delicious make-ahead dishes
These fun recipes are delicious whether you serve them cold from the fridge or at room temperature.
Summer Tomato Salad
Buy the prettiest heirloom tomatoes you can find for this sumptuous summer salad that is simple to prepare and topped with quick-pickled, thinly sliced red onion. If you don’t have microgreens, grab a handful of your favorite summer herbs — basil, mint, tarragon — and fling them on top with wild abandon.
Perfect Pesto Pasta
Everyone loves a pesto pasta salad — it’s a break from over-mayo-ed potato salads, and it’s delicious at any temperature (and less likely to have food safety issues). Throw in a handful of halved cherry tomatoes if you’ve got them, for color and a nice acidic contrast to the pesto. Homemade pesto is quick to put together, but if you’re truly in a pinch you can purchase a tub. Still do add the lemon juice though; it brightens up the dish in a lovely way.
Mexican Street Corn Salad
This sunny salad comes together quickly, yet offers a great depth of flavor. In the Southwest U.S. you can sometimes find elote, a Mexican take on corn on the cob, for sale from street vendors. This version lets you serve a big crowd easily; if you can’t find cotija cheese at your local market, feel free to substitute crumbled feta.
Cold Sesame Noodles
Cold sesame noodles can be surprisingly refreshing on a hot summer day, and also make a tasty dish to offer vegetarians or vegans that will be popular with everyone. Crunchy carrot, crisp cucumber, and a dressing with nutty peanut butter and sesame seeds make for a satisfying side that kids will gladly gobble up, too. Call it “peanut butter pasta” and they’re in!
Grill ‘em all!
Whether you’ve got a charcoal or gas grill, the recipes that follow are guaranteed to delight a crowd
The Classic Burger
This is an excellent recipe for a traditional backyard burger — though if you don’t have breadcrumbs on hand, feel free to leave them out. For some reason, homemade hamburgers tend to puff in the middle as they cook, making them look more like unwieldy meatballs. Instead of pressing them down with a spatula (which presses all the moisture out, too), solve the problem in advance by gently pressing your fist (or the bottom of a wider glass) into the center of the patties after you form them so the edges rise up a bit. The valley you created will then rise during cooking to create a picture-perfect burger.
Grilled Shrimp Tostadas
These healthy-ish entrees are satisfying and delicious, and because they call for seafood, you’ll spend more time assembling the tostadas than cooking them because the shrimp takes under five minutes to grill! A swipe of canned refried beans and a dollop of guacamole (used purchased if you like) gets them to satisfying and just a bit decadent — and they’re so quick to prepare that you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy your own BBQ.
Note: For any vegans in attendance, simply throw a few planks of firm, pressed tofu on the grill, turning occasionally until browned and crisp on both sides, then salt and season each one with lime juice and assemble tostadas as instructed, leaving off the crumbled cheese. Everybody wins.
Thai Grilled Beef Salad
Thai cuisine is especially satisfying in hot weather, both deeply satisfying yet somehow light and refreshing at the same time. This recipe is a great backyard BBQ idea from grilling maestro Steven Raichlen that will make everyone exclaim, “Wow!” A pound of toothsome (yet budget-friendly) flank steak is grilled simply with salt, pepper, and sesame oil, then mixed with the dressing/after-marinade (which is easily made ahead), and then scattered over the salad. Perfect summertime food, and it looks gorgeous to boot.
Grilled Tuscan Chicken with Rosemary and Lemon
Marinating the chicken pieces (feel free to buy them already cut up) in quickly-infused rosemary oil and salt and pepper inadvertently brines the chicken pieces too, keeping them from drying out on the grill, and remaining redolent of astringent rosemary. Basting them with lemon juice while they grill delivers a kick of acid that’s refreshing to bite into on a hot day. Remember the breasts will finish cooking before the thighs and drumsticks — grab your meat thermometer before you head outside for perfect pieces every time.
Grilled Orange and Smoked Paprika Brined Pork Chops with Basil Chimichurri
Brining the pork chops beforehand ensures the meat will be flavorful down to the bone — especially with the addition of smoked paprika — and will also help this leaner cut stay juicy and hold onto its moisture when it’s grilled. If you prepare the chimichurri sauce (this version is like a sassier version of pesto) at the same time you make the brine, when the party’s hopping all you have to do is let the meat rest for 20 minutes on a plate before you toss it on the grill. Then sit back and soak up the compliments.
Cuban Grilled Zucchini
Zucchini is easy to prep and fast to cook on the grill. This dish is gluten-free and paleo-friendly, but most importantly, it's delicious and easy to prepare for a crowd next to whatever else you’ve got grilling up. And this dish works whether you serve it piping hot or at room temperature, allowing you to work it into the grilling process whenever you choose.
Summer Sips and Sweets
There’s nothing better than a sweet, refreshing treat on a hot day, whether you’re sipping a cooling drink or tucking into a sweet dessert
Cucumber Agua Fresca
Just looking at this drink feels refreshing. Cucumber is whizzed with fresh ginger and lime juice for a summer sipper that’s lovely as-is or with a shot of gin or vodka for some extra fun. It’s easy to whip up in advance, and the recipe — which serves 8 — is easily doubled.
Red, White and Blue Popsicles
Wow a crowd when you step out with a platter of homemade popsicles. Fresh cherries, strawberries, and some vanilla yogurt are somehow more than the sum of their parts when you put them in a popsicle mold and enjoy them with friends at the end of a hot summer day. And without any additional sugar, they’re even good for you.
Trifle is an easy dessert to make ahead, and while it looks elaborate, it’s quite quick if you use purchased cake or a mix. Then it’s mostly assembly, but even that is pretty fun since the best trifles always look a little messy. They’re delightfully refreshing enjoyed in the summer sun, and sure to get ooh’s and ahh’s when you bring it outside to serve.
Want more bbq?
Check out these great grilling ideas.