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The Family Reunion Planner

How to Throw a Great Backyard Barbecue

Tips and tricks for easy entertaining, plus 5 suggestions for a delicious burger

Hot dog burgers, chicken kebabs and corn cooking on the BBQ

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Marie Widner and her husband love a good old-fashioned cookout.​

​“When we’re barbecuing, we get to enjoy the fresh air, smell the scent of charcoal from the grill and the delicious aroma coming from whatever we are cooking,” says Widner, 65, of Skokie, Illinois. “When you pair that with family and friends, we couldn’t ask for more.”​​ Widner is not alone. 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.

A little preparation goes a long way

Taking on some entertaining chores ahead of time can help make your barbecue run seamlessly. The Widners spend the week before their big event discussing the guest list and menu. “We go over who is coming, what they like to eat, what they don’t like, and scan our garden for the freshest ingredients,” she explains.​

​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 briquets or wood, make sure you have an ample supply and plenty of lighter fluid, Ibrahim says.​

Choose the 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. Widner likes to cut the veggies she’ll be grilling a day ahead of time and makes her sauces or chimichurri to accompany the meat the morning of her barbecue. “The best advice I could give someone else is to buy some great-tasting cheeses, pickles, olives and salami for a pre-dinner spread,” she shares.​​

How much to serve?

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

Snacks and appetizers: 2 to 3 small servings per person — for instance, 2 to 3 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 8 servings of each side. “Obviously, not all sides are created equal, so go a little heavy on the most popular item.”​​

Dessert: 1 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 fruit platter.​

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.”​ ​

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, the Widners never turn them down. “We like to handle the main event, so the best thing to do is to ask guests to bring an appetizer or dessert,” Marie says.

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 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. “We stock our bar with cool drinks, and our guests know they’re welcome to make whatever they like,” Widner says. “Bonus points go to the guest who makes a cocktail for my husband, who’s manning the grill!”​

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 filets. 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.​


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Add a few extra touches

A few quick touches can create an inviting ambience for your backyard soiree. “We keep it simple: a tablecloth and a few flowers from the garden on the table,” says Widner.​

If your outdoor table has an umbrella, she suggests taking a tablecloth and snipping 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, the Widners set up a shallow swimming pool or sprinkler and have a backyard games, 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. “We like to make a Spotify playlist and mix it up,” says Widner, noting that they play everything from classic rock to Motown and Bruno Mars.​

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, keeping desserts in tightly sealed containers, and removing areas of standing water, like birdbaths and flowerpot saucers, to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. You might also light a citronella candle or 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.”​

Create a Better Burger

Everyone loves a burger hot off the grill. Sometimes all you want is the best classic cheeseburger you can find, but it’s also great to throw in a twist with unusual flavors. We asked five chefs to share some favorite burger, seasonings and toppings suggestions. These contributions come from (in this order) Anita Lo, Tour de Forks host, Michelin-starred chef and author; Zorah Booley, The Everyday Low-FODMAP Cookbook author; Douglas Rodriguez, author and James Beard Award winner; Ashleigh VanHouten, coauthor of Carnivore-ish; and Tracye McQuirter, author and founder of 10 Million Black Vegan Women.

Classic: Ground beef (chuck and short rib); salt and pepper; toasted sesame seed bun; 2 slices American cheese; beefsteak tomato, lettuce, 3 pickle rounds, 1 slice red onion; Dijon mustard

Spicy: Ground beef; salt, paprika, lemon pepper and barbecue seasoning; sourdough or gluten-free bun; 1 slice cheddar or Swiss cheese; caramelized onion and crisp lettuce; mayonnaise mixed with sriracha

Cuban: Pork, ham and chorizo, ground together; adobo seasoning (salt, pepper, cumin, garlic, oregano); toasted Cuban roll or burger bun; crispy shoestring potatoes; onions; mustard and spicy ketchup

Asian: Ground turkey with dark meat; minced ginger, garlic, scallions, sea salt and toasted sesame oil; no bun; sesame-ginger coleslaw; mayonnaise mixed with Asian chile-garlic sauce

Veggie: Blend of black beans, mushrooms, brown rice and veggies; Italian herb seasoning blend; whole-grain bun; grilled onions and red bell peppers; garlic, fresh basil, fresh kale and avocado slices; salsa

Nicole Pajer is a contributing writer who covers health, culture and entertainment. She has also written for The New York Times, Parade, Woman’s Day and Wired.​ ​

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