I was just talking with a friend who has been unexpectedly thrust into hosting a cookout for about 20 people at her home in a couple days. She had a minor panic, being unsure about how to put together the event, how to handle the food, what was expected of her as the hostess. Here are some ideas I threw out there for her…with summer cookout season still going strong, especially heading toward Labor Day Weekend, maybe these will help someone else too.
-It’s less about the venue and the appearance and more about the warm welcome
For a casual cookout, you don’t have to have perfectly coordinated luau themed decorations and linens, tiki torches, and a roast pig (though that would be hecka fun). You don’t even have to have a sculpted lawn and matching patio furniture. Your house doesn’t have to be spotless, just reasonably picked up. Just be prepared, then remember to be calm and smile. Your guests will remember the feel of the party more than the details of how it looked.
-The role of the host is to give direction without overly herding people
You don’t have to force people’s every move, but you do need to give gentle direction. Laissez-faire hospitality can leave people wandering around aimlessly and having to ask awkward questions. Anticipate their questions and provide answers before they have to ask. “I’m so glad you’re here! Thanks so much for bringing chips. You can put them on the table there. Please help yourself to a drink from that cooler there. The bathroom is inside through the patio doors, on the other side of the kitchen. We’ve got burgers on the grill – we’ll be ready to eat in about 20 minutes. In the meantime, enjoy the veggies on the table.”
Make introductions. Try to mention a common interest as you make the introduction. Make sure everyone has someone to talk to. You cannot make people be friends, but at least you can set conversations up for success.
Orchestrate the evening. Let people know what to expect, what will be coming up – think of it as a casual Order of Ceremony. “Okay, the burgers are coming off the grill! We have buns and condiments on the table by the plates. You can form a line here. Sarah, would you mind going through the line first?”
“It looks like everyone’s almost done eating. There’s a trash bag right here when you’re done with your plates and cans. In about 15 minutes, we can move to the lawn – we have croquet over here, bocce there, and a volleyball net in the backyard. We’ll eat dessert around 8:30.”
-Cookout food should be simple
If you have grill skills, you can do hamburgers, chicken (boneless skinless thighs fit perfectly on a bun and are less expensive than breasts. If you do breasts, you can usually cut them in half for grilling), and sausages (bratwursts or sweet Italian sausage can be a nice change from hot dogs). You might want to have a box of veggie burgers on hand in case you end up with some vegetarians. Provide nice buns, sized appropriately for the various meats. Have condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayo, and a plate of lettuce and sliced tomatoes (skip the sliced onions – no one wants to be concerned about onion breath at a social occasion).
Really you can skip potato salad, coleslaw, etc. Cookouts seem to be more about the meats anyway. Maybe do a veggie tray and a fruit tray, some chips, maybe cheese and crackers.
Desserts can be simple too – cupcakes, watermelon, and brownies.
If you have a gathering of foodies, then definitely grill marinated fish and vegetables, serve exotic salads and appetizers, pair wines with the food, and have your pastry chef friend bring dessert. (And invite me.)
Get enough flats of water bottles (they often come in 24-packs) for each guest to have at least one bottle of water. Have a nice mix of carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, caffeinated and non-caffeinated. So, maybe Coke, Root Beer, 7-Up, and Lemonade or iced tea. If you’re doing alcohol, you can serve bottles of beer (some light, some regular – the Sam Adams summer pack is a nice assortment: Boston Lager, Light, Summer Ale, Blackberry Wit, Hefeweizen, and Pale Ale) and bottles of malternatives like Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade. Stock a couple coolers with ice ahead of time.
If you do drinks in cans and bottles, you don’t have to buy cups. This leads to fewer spills and avoids the whose-cup-is-this? awkwardness. If you have only finger foods, you don’t have to get silverware. Sturdy paper plates (like Chinet) and napkins (or a roll of paper towels can be less expensive) are all you need.
-Getting guests to contribute
It’s generally acceptable for a cookout to be a potluck. You can either wait for guests to ask what they should bring or just declare it a potluck from the outset. Give clear direction about what you want guests to bring. Single guys should usually be tasked with bringing drinks or chips or ice. (Be clear about what kind of drinks, for example, cans instead of 2-liters.) You can assign desserts and/or side dishes to the ladies or culinarily skilled men. BYOM (Bring Your Own Meat) can work well.
Relax and enjoy the summer with your friends.
What are your best cookout hospitality tips?
- How to Plan a Pirate Party in 7 Easy Steps
- How to Host a Guest Speaker
- Recuperating from Hospitality Overload