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6 Helpful Tips for Hosting a Hassle-Free Backyard Barbecue

Suggestions for easy entertaining

spinner image Hot dog burgers, chicken kebabs and corn cooking on the BBQ
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There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned cookout. ​

​The smell of something scrumptious sizzling on the grill, a spread of delicious side dishes, mild weather and good conversation are all part of the equation.

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​​Whether you’re firing up the grill on a holiday weekend or having friends over on a late-summer day, barbecuing is a favorite American pastime. But how much food should you serve? What can you ask guests to bring? Are there tricks for making cleanup more manageable?​

​We talked to some grill masters to create a helpful guide to throwing the perfect barbecue.

1. Prepare ahead of time 

Taking on some entertaining chores ahead of time can help make your barbecue run seamlessly. Decide who’s coming, check on dietary restrictions, and plan a menu. ​

​Mareya Ibrahim, 53, chef and author of Eat Like You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive, suggests that as the day of the event draws closer, you start by cleaning the grill. “A good stainless steel grill brush can help get rid of stubborn meat, cheese and vegetables,” she says.​​

Next, gather your grilling tools, including tongs; a basting brush; grill baskets; and separate cutting boards for meat, seafood and vegetables. Then check propane tanks; consider having a backup just in case. If you plan to use charcoal briquettes or wood, make sure you have an ample supply and plenty of lighter fluid, Ibrahim says.​

2. Choose the right food

Rick Mace, owner and executive chef of Tropical Smokehouse in West Palm Beach, Florida, says he plans his barbecue menus in three parts: “snacks to welcome folks to the party, the main spread, and some sweet or savory snacks for noshing afterwards.”​

He suggests that to save time, you make whatever you can in advance, whether that’s dips, potato or fruit salad, or dessert. Cut veggies for dips or grilling a day ahead and make any sauces needed before the event starts.

Think about making some dishes yourself and purchasing others to lighten the load.

3. Get portions right

To help decide on quantities, Mace offers the following guidelines.​

Snacks and appetizers: two to three small servings per person — for instance, two to three chicken wings apiece. Also: “Don’t feel compelled to put everything out at once,” Mace says. “That way, if there are latecomers or hungry early arrivals, you’re covered.”​​

Protein: 12 to 18 ounces of meat or seafood per person​​

Sides: “Two servings total is more than ample,” says Mace. So if you’re serving three sides for 12 people, he suggests making eight servings of each side. “Obviously, not all sides are created equal, so go a little heavy on the most popular item.”​​

Dessert: One serving per person, and add in some fruit. “Fresh fruit is always a great complement to barbecue,” Mace says. If you’d rather not bother with dessert, it’s a great option to ask guests to bring a pie, brownies or a fruit platter.​

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4. Use cook time guidelines

“In terms of timing, the items that take the longest are the ones that need a wet marinade,” Ibrahim says. If you’re cooking a flank steak or chicken, for example, she suggests marinating it in the fridge the night before, or for at least four hours prior to cooking. Actual cook times will vary greatly depending on what you’re grilling: the thickness of the cuts of meat or burgers; whether you’re grilling dark or light meat chicken; and how rare to well done your guests prefer their meat. But here are Ibrahim’s general guidelines.​​

  • Beef (cooked medium): 7 to 20 minutes. Allow steaks to rest 5 to 10 minutes after removing from grill.​
  • Poultry (cooked well done): 10 to 20 minutes. Allow chicken to rest 5 to 10 minutes after removing from grill.​
  • Shellfish: 4 to 10 minutes​
  • Fish fillets and steaks: 4 to 10 minutes​
  • Whole fish: 12 to 30 minutes​ ​

It’s OK if you don’t have everything ready by the time your guests arrive. “People love the smell of food grilling, so don’t feel like you have to finish everything in advance,” Ibrahim says. “That way, everyone can enjoy the food when it’s hot.”​ ​

5. Make hosting easier

Overwhelmed by the idea of choosing the menu, shopping for the food and manning the grill? Consider turning the barbecue into a potluck. When guests offer to bring something, don’t turn them down; an appetizer, a salad or a dessert can help extend your offerings without creating more work.

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Another option is to take care of the appetizers and sides but ask guests to bring whatever they’d like to throw on the grill — whether that’s a veggie burger or a steak. That way, everyone is in charge of their own dietary restrictions. Yet another option is to provide all the food but ask guests to bring a beverage.

For easy hosting, try setting up a buffet table with the food in aluminum trays, so guests can serve themselves. “Plan for enough serving utensils for each of your trays, and offer colorful paper napkins, plates, cutlery, cups and even your table cover to keep everything looking fun and festive — without having to wash anything afterward,” Ibrahim says.

Keep a cooler filled with ice and stocked with a variety of beverages. ​

To make cleanup even easier, Ibrahim suggests tricks like marinating foods in resealable plastic bags and bypassing the need for utensils by serving finger-food-size portions — think sliders and skewers rather than entire steaks or salmon fillets. For handheld sides, corn on the cob and sliced watermelon are great options. To prevent empty plates and cans and dirty napkins from piling up, keep a trash can and recycling bin nearby so guests can help with the cleanup.​

6. Add a few extra touches

A few quick touches can create an inviting ambiance for your backyard soiree. A pretty tablecloth, a few flowers from the garden and some candles at night can do the trick. ​

If your outdoor table has an umbrella, take a tablecloth and snip a small hole in the center so the umbrella stand can slide through. You can also purchase tablecloths designed this way. String some outdoor lights along a back fence or patio to create a pretty glow once the sun sets.​

For entertaining younger guests, think about setting up a shallow swimming pool or sprinkler and have a backyard game, like cornhole. Bocce ball and horseshoes are other popular lawn games.

On hot days, make sure to set up an outdoor fan or mister and provide shady spots where guests can avoid the sun. And don’t forget the music. ​Queue up a premade playlist or create your own.

One final important reminder is to consider pest control. “Having bugs swarming your food and your guests can completely ruin an event,” says Scot Hodges, vice president of professional development and technical services with Arrow Exterminators. If you’re serving sugary drinks like lemonade and soda, he suggests using covered pitchers. It’s also smart to keep desserts in tightly sealed containers and remove areas of standing water, like birdbaths and flowerpot saucers, to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Have bug spray on hand for guests to use.​

Finally, make sure to enjoy yourself! “Stress-free entertaining is very possible, but only with sufficient prior planning and preparation,” says Mace. He challenges hosts to try to be in the moment at their barbecues and to have fun. “It’s the company, food and drink that will make fond memories.”​​​​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 21, 2022. It has been updated to reflect new information. ​​​​​​

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