How to Host a Cookout

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.

-Paper goods
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.

-Have fun
Relax and enjoy the summer with your friends.

What are your best cookout hospitality tips?

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  • oeshpdog2

    I am going to “tweet” this if you don’t mind. Good stuff.

  • miller_schloss

    @oeshpdog2 - 

    I need to tweet this too…thanks for the reminder!

  • twentysixcats

    This is a great post! I saved it to my delicious bookmarks to share on my blog. Of course, I don’t anticipate hosting anything anytime soon.

    I really have nothing to add. Just… if you’re not going to have cups for drinks, make sure you have plenty of ice to keep the drinks cold. Also… make sure there is enough seating and shade.

  • Monyikka

    brilliant. i don’t have anything to add either.

  • hannahbarton

    Do not forget cheese for the burgers, brats, chicken, or just to eat alone. Unless you only eat kosher, in which case, forget the cookout and have a cheese tasting.

    Also, I think that vegetarians should bring their own tofu. I will not ever provide that any of my cookouts, unless I suddenly become allergic to meat… in which case, I will probably just decide to eat it anyway and die happy.

    This is a great list! Thanks, Becky.

  • miller_schloss

    @hannahbarton - 

    Hannah endorses Havarti with Dill, to which she introduced me, for which I will be forever indebted to her.

  • gwyneth

    @miller_schloss - 

    i don’t think Jesus liked cheese. therefore…neither do i. amen.

  • ezygiel

    i think that God, in His infinite wisdom, created cheese. in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. amen (since we’re amening things)

    also, good list. they do make cups with places to ‘scratch’ your name in – very helpful if going the cup/ice route.

  • GinaLB

    Great list. Thanks for posting it.

  • whomhavei

    I love my wife… and cheese… and meat… and not Tofu.

  • curlybecca

    Nice work! You should definitely write that hospitality book/blog!

    I wouldn’t assume all ladies can cook though… I hate potlucks where you’re expected to make something, because I hardly have the culinary confidence to feed myself, much less a group of people in public.

  • simply_nikki

    I can’t wait to go to your first cookout! I hope I don’t have to drive to NC for it –.

    Personally, the potato/pasta/egg salads are my favorite part of a cookout, but I could be the odd one out. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  • twentysixcats

    @simply_nikki - 

    You’re not the only one, Nichole!

  • Falconschloss

    Becky, read my latest post, you just got one upped. OH, SNAP!!!!!!!

  • Falconschloss

    Did you snort and have milk come out your nose? If so, that would have been an epic reaction.

  • Badcat926

    If only you had posted this last week! We had our BBQ (cook out seems to be an East Coast word) on Sunday for Reagan’s birthday. Looking over your suggestions, I guess we did it pretty well. :o ) We don’t have matching patio furniture! We even used a bass drum case as a table! Now that I work with au pairs, I host monthly events. Twice a year or more we host a group of 40 in our living room! With experience, I’ve gotten a lot better at putting things together in a matter of hours. I’ve also realized that what you see when the room is empty is not what you see when the room is full.

  • airborneschloss

    We picked up so Smokey Horseradish cheese in Pennsylvania. Yummy. Tofu is good if you prepare it correctly. You do have to get used to the texture or lack thereof.

    Great post on hosting. Could be the beginning of a good book!

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