The elegance of yesteryear’s garden party has evolved into the more casual backyard barbecue. In this guide, we’ll talk about how to throw the ultimate American backyard barbecue with a touch of class.
History of Backyard BBQs
Back in the day, barbecues were a family affair. When they were first introduced to America in the early 1960s, they were a weekend treat on a hot summer day. American dads would stand by the kettle grill and barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers for the family as the kids ran through the sprinkler or frolicked in the pool. Mom would make her homemade iced tea inside and come out to enjoy time with the family when dad called out that dinner was ready. Plaid plastic tablecloths covered the wooden picnic table and dinner was enjoyed by the All-American family.
When it came to entertaining guests, parties were more formal and for the upper echelons of society, the food consisted of fresh seafood and the event was referred to as a garden party rather than a barbecue.
Then suburban America took over, and neighbors began to throw block parties. Streets were shut down, and fireworks set off. The kids on the block played baseball in the street while the moms sipped cocktails and the dads stood in front of the handful of grills cooking hamburgers for everyone on the street. Soon these barbecue-style events were regular occurrences in most cities. Local sports teams enjoyed fellowship over a team barbecue, companies got together for barbecues and soon people began to throw them for any reason at all, in an effort to spend quality time with friends or extended family. Today the tradition continues, and the All-American backyard barbecue is something many of us look forward to each summer.
What You’ll Need
To host a barbecue, all you really need is a grill, a lighting source — like propane or charcoal — and food and beverages to offer your guests. It can be as simple as hamburgers and hotdogs or as lovely as fresh lobster.
However, if you really want to throw a great barbecue, you may want to consider the following items, in addition to the food, plates, cups and cutlery:
Silverware & Plates
A BBQ is traditionally the domain of disposable plates, cups and silverware. This approach certainly reduces the clean-up after the party and you are much less likely to run out. However, the easiest way to give even a casual BBQ a classic touch is to use real cutlery, glasses, and plates. It’s better for the environment, real plates don’t sag and drip, and they simply look better.
If you don’t have enough plates and glasses already, this is a great time to invest in simple, inexpensive catering-grade tableware. Stemless wine glasses, white plates, and silverware are relatively inexpensive and great for frequent home entertainers. Ikea also has a large selection of glasses and plates for as little as $1 each.
Consider playing some good old-fashioned tunes over outdoor speakers. Anything from classic country to southern blues and jazz works well for a barbecue. Get creative and even give up some control to your guests.
As the sun goes down, you may want to consider some mood lighting. Twinkle lights strung overhead offer a touch of elegance, but a good old-fashioned bonfire (if legally permitted) is a great way to enjoy the company of your guests while roasting s’mores or hotdogs.
Alcoholic Beverages & Mocktails for the Kids
Whether it’s cold beer, frozen margaritas or the preppy G&T, having a selection of alcoholic beverages is a great way to loosen up and enjoy the evening. If you have kids at the barbecue, consider a non-alcoholic specialty drink or fun punches they can enjoy.
Games for the Kids and Adults
Sometimes the best barbecues are just great conversations around the table, but other times it’s the games that are the most fun. This is especially useful if there are kids at the party. A piñata, ring toss game or just a few balls to throw and kick around are all you need. Even an impromptu game of touch football is a great way to bond with your friends and family.
Who to invite
First, consider what kind of group you want. Is this a work function, a family affair or just a casual dinner with friends?
Once you’ve decided that, putting together a list is the easy part. Just be sure to invite everyone in that sphere of influence, so no one feels left out. It only costs a few extra bucks to throw on another hamburger patty or hot dog.
This is a barbecue, not a wedding. The need to send a formal invitation in the mail isn’t necessary. A simple email, telephone call or handwritten correspondence card sent via snail mail is perfectly acceptable.
In the invitation, simply specify the type of event, so people know it’s casual. Where and when it is to be held. How to RSVP and the dress code. If it’s open to the whole family, address it to the entire family. If it’s for adults only, specify that in the email, so no one feels awkward if they accidentally show up with kids in tow.
Adults Only vs. Families
There are certain benefits to having adult only barbecues vs. opening them to children.
- Adult only barbecues allow adults to feel more at ease consuming alcohol and engaging in adult conversation.
- Adult only events are often easier to plan and can last longer into the night.
- You can serve a more elegant dinner such steaks, fish or seafood that might be lost on children.
- Barbecues are traditionally family events, so it’s always nice to open it to the entire family.
- Some guests may decline if they have to worry about finding a babysitter or need to be up early with children.
- You run a greater risk of the event going well into the night or disturbing your neighbors.
When to Host the Barbecue
To ensure maximum interest from your guests and make sure most are able to attend, here are some tips on when you should throw a barbecue.
- Host it on a weekend, ideally Saturday so people can come early and stay late.
- Starting your barbecue in the late afternoon such as 4 or 5pm will give you the best chance of attracting families with children if it’s a family-friendly event.
- If you don’t want the barbecue to last well into the evening, start your barbecue mid-afternoon around 2:00 or 3:00 PM.
- When you send out your invitations, it’s a wise idea to include a rain date in case of inclement weather. Even if the weather is nice when people arrive, be sure your home is clean and ready-to-go in case a sudden summer storm means having to retreat indoors.
- Purchasing or renting a large outdoor tent can be a valuable investment for parties with larger crowds where you may not have the space in your home should the weather turn.
The Set Up and Decor
When it comes time to setting up for a barbecue, you can go all out with games for the kids and tables with white linens. However, the best option is often simplicity. Here are some tips for setting up your barbecue and decorating:
Small to Medium Crowds
Tables & Chairs
For small crowds, it’s often best to stick with a single long table if possible so everyone can share the meal together. If you don’t have a long enough table, consider buying a large plank of hardwood at your hardware store and setting it on work horses. By covering it with a tablecloth no one will realize your extra long table is just untreated wood. Set up the chairs the same as you would a dining room table and consider chair covers if you have to use different kinds of chairs. That or you can rent chairs at your local party store.
When it comes to decorating, placing some large fish bowls filled with colorful rocks and fresh cut flowers will help to hold down the tablecloth and provide a nice centerpiece. You can fill it to the top of the rocks with water and even put some tea light candles in the bowls if there’s room.
Since lighting is so important, a few simple strings of white lights hovering above the table will add the perfect glow as the sun sets in the evening. You can also place various sized candles around the table and use bamboo torches throughout the yard. There really is no need for streamers and balloons unless it’s a birthday party.
For more elegant affairs, consider white tablecloths to add a touch of elegance. However, if it’s just a casual evening with friends, paper plates and plastic cutlery are acceptable.
Tables & Chairs
If you are expecting a large crowd, seating can often be an issue. If you have the chairs, consider setting them up throughout the yard rather than in a large row. You can still use the hardwood and workhorse table idea but you may be better off with a few tables for people to congregate at. If your barbecue is casual, simply having a number of chairs for people to sit at is fine and most people will just hold their plates or rest them on their laps. You can also ask your guests to bring their own camping chairs if you’re expecting a very large crowd for a casual barbecue. You don’t have to have enough chairs for everyone. Many people are content to stand and move around as they mingle.
If you’re not using a large table, consider setting up the food in buffet off to the side. For lighting you can string lights throughout the yard and use a mix of candles and tiki-style torches throughout. If you have a larger budget, you could invest in Avea Flare lights, which can be controlled via your smartphone and placed around the yard. If you have the room and are able to legally do it, having a bonfire will offer guests a place to congregate and stay warm as the sun sets later in the night.
Tips to Reduce Workload and Stress
Here are a few tips to reduce your workload so you can have fun and engage with your guests:
- Try to prep as much ahead of time so you can pull it out as needed.
- Consider batch cocktails or bottled drinks for your guests so you’re not stuck behind the bar and don’t have to worry about having different types of glassware.
- Often the main dishes that take the most effort are the easiest to step away from during the event. A brisket or suckling pig can be started in advance and as long as you check on it, you’ll be fine. Hamburgers, on the other hand, require your constant supervision at the grill during the event.
- Plastic and paper plates are the easiest for cleanup if you’re hosting an informal barbecue.
- Consider buying salads, sides and desserts rather than making them.
- If you need to rent extra tables and chairs, rent from a company that will set them up and remove them for you whenever possible.
- To set the mood and prevent awkward introductions, consider playing music over loudspeakers such as reggae, West Coast jazz, country, rock or the blues. This way you aren’t stuck trying to get people talking as they arrive and there won’t be any awkward silences where the only sound is the crickets.
- Using candles and torches will help to keep insects and animals away.
- Weather permitting; consider setting up the yard the day before or early that morning so you have time to rest before the party begins.
- Try to get all the food prepped and plated in advance. Even if it has to be cooked last minute, cutting and measuring ingredients in advance will save you time.
- Considering hiring a yard service to mow, rake and prepare your yard so you don’t have to.
Types of Food to Serve
The options are endless. If it can go on the grill, you can make it. From hamburgers and hot dogs to steaks, lobster, brisket and even pizza, there are no limits.
How Much to Make
People enjoy eating at barbecues, so it’s a good plan to offer numerous sides and snacks. Even a few bags of potato chips go a long way, as do salads and appetizers. Ice cream, popsicles, and cookies for kids are great ways to keep their energy up and fill them up after dinner so they’re not begging for snacks.
Typically, if you’re serving one main dish that’s slightly pricier, you want to ensure there is one full serving for each person plus a few extras. This applies to steaks, seafood, fish and meat sandwiches.
If you’re serving casual fare, two servings are best, and it never hurts to make extra. Since hot dogs and hamburgers take such little time to grill, you can even ask what each person wants when they arrive.
Then, simply give them extra sides like potato salad, coleslaw, other salads, baked beans, potato chips, or more elegant sides like oysters, crab or shrimp cocktails.
When it comes time to hosting a barbecue, having a list of menu items is something worth taking the time to create. Not only does it help keep you more organized, but once you determine which recipes you want to use, it will help save money grocery shopping by giving you a complete list of ingredients you’ll need. That way, you won’t be running through the aisles at your grocery store like a mad man without a map.
Like any meal, it helps to offer a range of items from the various food groups.
Here are two basic menu ideas with some recipes below:
Traditional Barbecue Menu
- Potato Chips
- Kettle Corn
- Fruit and Vegetable Tray
- Hamburgers (consider regular or stuffed burgers)
- Smokies, Hotdogs or Sausages
- Pulled Pork Sandwiches
- Suckling Pig
- Diced onions & condiments
- Cheeses (cheddar, swiss, mozzarella)
- Pickled hot peppers
- BBQ Sauce
- Hot Sauce
- Buns (hot dog, hamburger, kaiser, brioche)
- Potato Salad
- Macaroni Salad
- Caesar Salad
- Grill-fired Peppers
- Baked Beans
- Louisiana Corn on the Cob
- Ice Cream Sundaes
- Cotton Candy
- Apple Pie
- Iced Tea
- Cold Beer
- Ice Water
- Soft Drinks
This is a fairly standard menu for any barbecue. It’s inexpensive to create and gives the host many options to add or delete items as needed. It’s important to remember that any items containing dairy or eggs should be kept on ice or refrigerated until they’re ready to be used.
Although the main dishes should ideally be cooked on the grill, sides like salads, baked beans and even desserts can be bought at the store to save time and money which allows you to engage with your guests rather than be stuck in the kitchen. A simple scoop of the salad into a bowl is all it takes to give your guests a great backyard barbecue experience.
When it comes to drinks, beer is a standard for the quintessential barbecue. We recommend having a few options in both light and dark to choose from. You could also introduce wine, sangria or a batch cocktail like margaritas or pina coladas.
Elegant Barbecue Menu
- Oysters on the Half Shell
- Crab Legs on Ice
- Shrimp Cocktail
- Charcuterie & Imported Cheese Plate
- Gazpacho Soup
- Ribeye Steaks
- Grilled Lobster Tails
- Pork Tenderloin
- Fiery Spit-Roasted Chicken
- Fresh Cucumber and Onion Salad
- Grilled Asparagus
- Fire Roasted Potatoes
- Charred Corn and Cilantro Spiced Salad
- Chocolate Mousse
- Fruit trifle
- Iced Tea
- Gin & Tonic
- Moscow Mule
A barbecue doesn’t always have to be paper plates and burgers. It can easily be elevated for the most discerning guests. It takes a little more work but you can still save time by serving cold crab legs, gazpacho made a few days in advance and a large pitcher of gin and tonic rather than individual servings. The goal is to try to get as much done before your guests arrive as possible. Seasoning lobster tails prevents having to clarify butter, and charcuterie purchased from your butcher or a local restaurant can be plated in minutes without fuss. Even a batch cocktail like sangria will help to ensure you aren’t constantly tending to your guests, but mingling with them instead.
Coarse Ground Black Pepper
Red Pepper Flakes
1/4 Cup Soft Butter
Of all the cuts of meat, rib-eyes are my personal favorite. Prepare the absolute hottest grill you can and let it get hotter. While the grill is preheating, take your fresh steaks out of the fridge and let them sit on the counter until they get to room temperature. With many cuts of beef, pounding them can make them more flavorful and succulent, however, there is no need to do that with a rib-eye. Pat the steaks dry and rub them well with some olive oil. People always say “grease your grill” but I say “grease the meat.” Leave the grill alone. Once your meat is oiled up, season it well on both sides with coarse sea salt. That’s it. No pepper, nothing else at this time. Why? Pepper burns and over a hot flame it can impart some pretty nasty flavors into your beef. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to add it. Just not right now.
In a separate bowl, crush some fresh black pepper balls into coarsely ground pepper and add some red pepper flakes, finely chopped tarragon, rosemary and parsley, and minced garlic. Then take soft butter and mix it all together into a paste. Leave it in the bowl.
Many people will tell you only to flip your steak once. I say do it every thirty seconds. Or more. Don’t believe me that you’ll get a better crust and more even cook to your steak? Try it. About a minute before your steak is done season it with some coarse ground salt. Once the steak is cooked to your liking (mine is rare), take it off the grill and put it on a plate to rest. Scoop a little of the butter mixture onto each steak and loosely cover them with foil. Let them sit for about 10 minutes. Then serve. Done. Want an extra zip? Add some bourbon to your butter mixture before mixing it. Just don’t serve it to children or operate heavy machinery. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Fiery Spit-Roasted Chicken
1 Large Free Range Chicken
2 Cans of Guinness Beer
Coarse Sea Salt
Coarse Ground Pepper
Dash of Cayenne Pepper
2 Large White Onions
Take your chicken and give it a good wash before patting it dry. The trick is PAT IT DRY! This is what ensures the crispy skin. Lay it inside a lipped baking ban just big enough for it. Take the block of butter and begin smearing it all over the chicken, inside and out. With the leftover butter, place it in a bowl and add half a can of Guinness to the bowl. Whip the butter into a smooth paste and rub all of it inside the cavity of the chicken. Take all of your dry seasonings (salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and garlic powder) and rub the entire bird with it , giving it a thin coating on every inch of skin. Shove one whole but peeled onion into the cavity. Follow by stuffing the fresh thyme, sage and rosemary inside the crevices and finally putting in the apple and the last onion. Truss the bird and attach it to the rotisserie for cooking. Preheat your grill to around 400F and insert the rod with the chicken on it onto the grill and rotator. Place a large drip tray with a little water in it just below the chicken and cook for about 1-1.5 hours until the skin is crispy and the juices run clear throughout. Here’s the trick: Every 30 minutes, take a spray can filled with olive oil and the other half can of beer and give the chicken a good spray. Oh yeah, that second beer we mentioned… That’s to drink, so get to it.
Prep time: 1 Hour
Cook time: 10 Hours
7lbs, butcher quality, flat-cut beef brisket with a nice fat cap.
2-3 tbsp coarse salt
2-3 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
2-3 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp cayenne pepper
2-3 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
2-3 tbsp sweet paprika
2-3 tbsp coarse black pepper
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 can Guinness beer
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp cracked black pepper
Mix all the rub seasonings together in a prep bowl. With the brisket on a prep tray, rub it down with mustard and Worcestershire sauce until it’s evenly coated on all sides. Then, take the rub and generously massage it all over the meat, ensuring you get all sides.
Heat the grill using the method described above with a water pan on the other side of the grill. After the grill is lit to about 225°F, place some soaked wood chunks under the cooking grate on top of the charcoal to add some smoke. Take the brisket and place it fat side up on indirect heat (over the water pan, not the charcoal). You want your temperature to stay consistent at 225-250°F throughout the cooking time. I suggest using a stand-alone oven thermometer over a grill thermometer, as it doesn’t have to be stuck into the meat, which will release its juices. Close the lid and open the vents, adjusting them accordingly. If your temperature gets lower, you want to make sure you add charcoal to bring the heat back up.
After the brisket has been on for about an hour, you’ll want to mix your mop together in a medium bowl. Using a barbecue mop, you’re going to want to mop your brisket roughly every thirty minutes, adding more smoking wood or chips to the fire as well. Be sure to check the temperature of the grill each time and to adjust vents or add charcoal accordingly.
After eight hours has passed, you’re going to take the brisket and wrap it tightly in aluminum foil. Place it back on the grill and let it sit for another two hours. After the ten hour mark, remove the brisket from the grill, unwrap it and let it sit for about 10-15 minutes before slicing. Enjoy!
BBQ Spare Ribs
Prep time: 1 Hour
Cook time: 5 Hours
Pork spare ribs, membrane-trimmed or skored
Keen’s hot mustard
5 tbsp kosher salt
4 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp cayenne pepper
3 tsp garlic powder
3 tbsp paprika
3 tsp onion powder
5 cups ketchup
1 cup water
1 cup of bourbon whiskey
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup apple juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
5 tbsp dijon mustard
3 tbsp onion powder
5 tbsp garlic powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
If you do decide to use a charcoal kettle grill, prep it using the same method as you did for the brisket above. I suggest using hickory or mesquite wood for smoking ribs.
1. Generously massage the hot mustard into all sides of the ribs and coat evenly with the rub. Place the ribs on the grill grates.
2. In a medium bowl, mix the ingredients for your BBQ sauce.
3. Place it on a side burner or the grill (if there’s room) on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until it’s heated throughout.
4. Every 30 minutes, spray the ribs down with a spray can filled with apple juice.
5. After four hours, remove the ribs and place on aluminum foil. Smother them generously with the BBQ sauce and wrap the ribs tightly in the aluminum foil, placing them back on the grill for another hour.
6. Let them rest for about 15 minutes and enjoy!
Uncooked lobster tails
Fresh lemon juice
Shell side down, place the tails on a cutting board and split them lengthwise to reveal the delicate meat. In a hot pan over the grill, soften the butter, lemon juice, and salt, being sure not to melt it fully. Give it a quick mix and spread it over the meat of the lobster including under the shell if you can. Place the tails shell side down on the grill over direct heat and close the lid. Let them cook for about six or seven minutes, until the meat turns opaque. Serve it with your favorite sauce or as is. All in all, the entire recipe should take about ten minutes.
Charred Corn and Cilantro Spiced Salad
Can of corn niblets
Large handful of coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Habanero pepper diced
1/4 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of fresh lime juice
Finely chopped garlic
1 tsp of ground cumin
1/2 tsp of smoked paprika
Coarse sea salt and ground pepper to taste
In a hot grill pan with olive oil, place the corn and continue to toss it until it’s lightly charred. Remove it from the heat and quickly place it in the freezer to cool for a few minutes. Combine all the ingredients together in a salad bowl and mix well. Serve. All together it takes about ten minutes to make. It works even better as leftovers the next day once it’s marinated for awhile in the dressing. If you have more time, use corn on the cob right on the grill. Then cut the corn off the cob. I also like to add avocado to this recipe.
Fresh Cucumber and Onion Salad
Cucumber thinly sliced into rounds
Sweet, white or red onion sliced into thin rings
1 cup sugar
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
Just toss all the ingredients together in a bowl and enjoy. It takes about 2 minutes, and that’s because you need to cut an onion and a cucumber. It’s fresh way to liven up your meal. If you have time though, let it sit for an hour or two to marinate.
Louisiana Corn on the Cob
Salt & Pepper
Dash of Cayenne Pepper
Dash of Lime Juice
Old Bay Seasoning
Peel back the husks and remove any excess, ensuring you leave the husks attached at the bottom. Soak the corn in the husks for about one hour in cold salt water. Soak BBQ string as well. Preheat your grill to medium-high heat. Once the corn is soaked, take the butter and all the seasonings and mix into a paste in a prep bowl. Pat the corn lightly dry and season with salt and pepper lightly. Using the string tie the husks around the corn and place on the BBQ. Keeping a close eye on it, continue turning the corn until each part is fully cooked. Remove the corn and peel back the husks. Smear the Louisiana butter mixture on each corn and tie the husks back around the corn. Cover the corn loosely with foil to allow the butter spread to melt. Enjoy!
A backyard barbecue is the perfect way to enjoy a summer evening with friends, family and casual fun. What are your favorite barbecue recipes and tips?