Hosting a cookout is opening the arms of your space to a bunch of your friends. The premise is that there will be food and people, but there are several factors in the middle that impact outcome. A BBQ is a great way to get people together and avoid making a 20-minute drive or ride home, or if you are like me, it is a great way to exercise the skill of being a host.
Beyond the food and the people, the atmosphere is what really makes the event. Generally, people are happy when they get to eat and get to hang out with their friends, so the goal is to facilitate those activities. Based on my experiences hosting and attending, I have broken down what it takes to host a successful event. Download the checklist at the end!
When your guests show up
Your house needs to be easy to find. If you have an inconspicuous house number, add a balloon to signify where the party is. Give your porch a sweep if you find it uninviting.
Some people like to have their cookouts begin much earlier than a weekend meal time. Some will start theirs at meal time. I am a fan of a 5 pm cookout aiming for dinner being served around 6:15. This allows time everyone to arrive and visit before halting the flow of the night to eat. Food should be served within an hour and a half of the start of the event. If it will be more than an hour, serve some sort of appetizer like chips and dip, these delicious and fattening jalapeño poppers, or hot wings (without the recommended sauce).
There Should Be Music
Music can make people feel like they are enjoying themselves even if they aren’t being entertained. It should be a part of the background to distract people from the moments no one has anything interesting to say but not distract them from saying something interesting.
A mistake I keep making is not putting effort into the music selection ahead of time and then feeling self-conscious when I have left it up to my husband’s rap Pandora station.
Making a playlist with a mix of old, new, pop and whatever you prefer goes a long way if you have a mixed crowd. It’s not just about the music you like because even if your guests are your best friends, their tastes likely do not align with yours exactly. It is also a good idea to avoid explicit lyrics for the sensible guests.
A playlist also a good idea so that your guests can avoid sitting through your self-indulgent friend that thinks he’s a deejay switching songs every 30 seconds.
Volume is a huge factor in music detail. If your guests have to yell to talk over the music, it’s too loud. Do you like yelling? No, and your guests don’t either. You are hosting a cookout to facilitate people enjoying each other; making it harder for them to talk is counterproductive to that goal.
It is also a great idea to have sound system other than the speaker on your phone. A Bluetooth speaker works well for those of us that don’t have surround sound, and a bigger speaker is even better to try to fill more of the space.
Guests also want to come to a clean house. Decorations add intrigue, but cleanliness helps people relax. When I attend a cookout, I want the area I’m hanging out in to be clean and free of obstacles like children’s toys and paperwork. The bathroom needs to be clean and sanitary, and the kitchen needs to at least be sanitary for me not to feel comfortable in your home.
The bathroom needs to have a clean sink, clean toilet, no clutter, clean mirror, an extra roll of toilet paper, and soap and something to dry hands on. It is amazing how many times I have been to someone’s home and there has not been soap or a towel. That makes me feel like they don’t care about me washing my hands because they don’t care about washing their hands, which doesn’t increase my level of comfort eating at their house.
Pro Tip: If you have a towel for guests to dry their hands on, swap it out once or twice throughout the evening as it gets wet. If it is hard for you to keep tabs on, ask a couple friends to let you know when it needs to be done, or also if the trash needs to be taken out.
The kitchen should be sanitary, but guests understand if it isn’t totally organized. Ideally the dishes are washed, and dishwasher is empty so that dirty dishes can be place inside and out of view as they are created. The trash should be empty at the beginning of the event with a second receptacle for trash or recyclables if possible. Trash should be checked throughout the night.
The communal area should be neat and clear of articles of clutter like baby-related contraptions or personal items. Guests should be able to sit comfortably and have space to sit their drinks and plates.
Seating will depend on when the food is served. If people are able to eat as soon as they arrive, you won’t need to worry about having a seat for each person. Some people don’t mind standing, but they will also require space to place their plates and drinks.
You can rent chairs and tables from a local party supplies company for a couple dollars each and there usually is no minimum amount. You will just need to plan ahead as they are often unreachable on the weekends.
If you don’t want your guests to spend the whole even on Instagram, having a few activities is a good idea. Activities are very helpful when your crowd is mixed. If all the guests aren’t from the same group of friends, activities will give people something to do when they don’t just love forcing conversation with people they’ve just met. Cornhole, beer pong, darts, Uno, Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples are a few easy games for groups. I would suggest any game that doesn’t require a lot of explanation.
If children will be present, it is wise to provide something for them to do lest they destroy something in your house.
You can speak to your friend ahead of time to see if they will be bringing something to entertain the child, but you do need to think about this and arrange at least one toy or activity for the kids. That could be providing chalk for outside, crayons and coloring books, balls, or even balloons.
If your guests will be outside, remember to pick up some bug spray for everyone to use, and better yet, some torches or bug repellent candles or lamps.
If you’ve invited me to your cookout, what you will be serving and what cupcake I’m baking is what I have thought about most, rather than having fun. Please serve the food within an hour and a half. I hate showing up to a cookout after running around getting ready all afternoon, only to be made to wait to eat another two hours with no appetizers.
If you have a guest with known dietary restrictions, a good host will arrange an alternative or reach out to that individual to see if they will be bringing their own food.
In my opinion, a good rule of thumb for how much meat to provide is 2-2.5 servings per person. That’s a burger and a chicken leg, or two brats; whatever combination of meats you have, expect each person to have 2.
The safe zone of grilling is burgers and hot dogs, and if it’s a mature crowd, bratwursts. Since some people won’t be crazy about bread or processed foods, it’s a good idea to throw on another meat, ideally chicken.
For burgers, I recommend seasoning all the meat and weighing out the portions. I find 4 oz per patty to be a good size. You also want to flatten them out and put a depression in the middle to prevent them from bubbling up. To do this, you will simply push down with a thumb in the middle of each patty to make a shallow depression.
For hotdogs, it is important to cook them over medium heat to char and plump then move them to indirect heat. The saddest thing to see at a cookout is shriveled, impotent hotdogs which comes from cooking too fast and too high. Medium heat is 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit, which is being able to hold your palm over the heat for 3 to 4 seconds.
For Brats, you can just throw them on the grill over medium to low heat and even utilize a beer bath after they are cooked to keep warm. Whatever you do, make sure they cook all the way through. You can check the temperature of the bratwurst hoping for 160 degrees Fahrenheit, or just cut one open.
Chicken also needs to be checked for doneness. The minimum safe temperature for chicken is 165 degrees, but in my experience, chicken legs or chicken thighs are more consistently done between 185 and 200. Chicken breast should be good at 165 but are more susceptible than other cuts to being overcooked and dry.
A good variety of sides will complement your prime selection of meats. There are so many quintessential sides for a cookout that it may be hard to choose. The best selection will contain more than just potato chips or starches. Macaroni and cheese, pasta salad, and potato salad sounds good, but adding some vegetables other than corn on the cob will cover more areas of the palate. And if you are serving potato salad, leave out the weird ingredients…
I personally do not recommend providing salad unless there are cuts of meat that can be added to the salad creating a healthy entrée option. I don’t prefer salad because I don’t think it fits well on the plate and requires providing a variety of dressings.
Also important, be sure to provide serving utensils for each dish. While your college friends may not mind using two plastic forks to serve the pasta salad, you can do better. This includes tongs for the meat.
Being a Host
The job of a good host is more than just opening his or her home to guests and making sure they are fed. The best hosts also make sure their guests have a good time. This includes making their home comfortable, providing adequate food, and providing social support.
First of all, a good host is dressed prior to guests’ arrival. Cooking or cleaning when the weird guests or close friends who show up on time is better than showering and getting dressed after they have arrived. The host should be dressed and relaxed, which I know can be difficult when host an event, but if you must scale back on your aspirations for the event in order to be dressed and relaxed, do so.
A good host introduces guests to other guests in their vicinity and possibly makes a connection between the individuals meeting. A good host is also vigilant about making sure her guests are having a good time. If anyone is sitting alone or just scrolling through their phone, ask them to help with something or engage that person in conversation.
This means asking your spouse’s random coworker about the merits of the woman he’s dating…whom you’ve never met. Or, engaging your seasoned mom friend in a conversation about how she gets her baby to sleep at night. You can really talk about anything; people appreciate being asked about themselves.
A good host also circulates through the crowd intentionally. He or she isn’t only focused on people who may not be enjoying themselves, but also seeks to spend at least a small amount of time with all the guests that were nice enough to show up.
If personally rescuing each lonely person or visiting with every guest isn’t feasible, then it’s a great idea to start a game of Uno or Catchphrase. Gameplay or competition will get people talking to each other and enjoying themselves.
Providing all the food for a cookout is straightforward and less stressful on guests but more stressful for you. Catering is even better, but most young people don’t want to take on that expense. Having your friends bring a dish or supplies is a great way to make the event happen without a big budget. The downside is not having complete control of what ends up on the table.
If you have the option of assigning items, do not assign important items to irresponsible people. Don’t assign your husband’s flighty, bachelor friend to bring all the buns. Don’t rely on your friend that cancels every. single. time to bring all the plates.
If you know Karen makes a weird potato salad, you can politely let her know that your friend Janet, whom she doesn’t know, has already volunteered.
Ice is the most important item when it comes to drinks. You will need ice to keep sodas and beers cold, and ice to go inside drinks; preferably two separate containers. What other beverage you should provide depends on if there is alcohol or not.
If there is no alcohol, throwing together a punch in addition to an assortment of sodas is a great idea. If there will be children present, providing juice is a great idea. If there is alcohol, guests will likely be more interested in their personal drinks than a non-alcoholic punch, unless you serve a punch with alcohol!
These recommendations are my observations after hosting a handful of cookouts and events and attending several more better and worse than my own. My husband being one of the few married soldiers and living on the military post has designated our home as the meeting place for my husband’s coworkers who are primarily single living on Post in barracks.
Much like thinking how if nothing else goes well at the wedding, at least you’ll get married, if you can’t tend to all the details, at least serve some food and have a good time. The host can easily set the tone for the event, so just have fun!
Download the checklist so you don’t miss any details!
There is one affiliate link in this post. If you make a purchase through the link, I will earn a small fee.