Throw a perfect backyard barbecue party


I'm no grill master. I leave that to my husband. But, I do love hosting cookouts in the summer. There's just something about playing ladder ball while sipping fruity cocktails amid the smell of charcoal.

While backyard parties are a blast, hosting is more than just throwing out a veggie platter and a bowl of potato salad and making sure there are enough hot dog buns. It can be stressful.

With the help of barbecue experts, I've come up with eight tips to hosting an amazing backyard barbecue without totally stressing out. A glass of wine won't hurt either.

-Kristy MacKaben


Pick a theme

This may sound like a lot of work or even a bit cheesy, but surprisingly a theme can make your life easier and your party more fun. With a Mexican theme, serve grilled fish tacos, guacamole and margaritas, or serve burgers, brats and Berghoff beer for a Chicago barbecue theme, for example.

"It creates a more fun and memorable event," says Debi Lilly, chief eventeur of A Perfect Event in Chicago.

Create a menu based on the theme-everything from drinks and appetizers to main dish, sides and dessert, Lilly says. Plan your guest list, figure out how much food is needed and what guests can bring.

"I always love to do a theme where people are actually bringing something that goes with it," says Julie Reinhardt, author of She-Smoke, a book about barbecuing.


Prep food ahead of time

Don't spend time cutting veggies or mixing potato salad when you could be out schmoozing with your guests. Most sides, appetizers and desserts can be prepared ahead of time, says Carlos Acevedo, editor for Better Homes and Gardens' grilling publications.


Make the grill the focal point

Just like everyone hovers in the kitchen during an indoor party, people will naturally want to gravitate toward the grill during a cookout, says Acevedo. Instead of slaving over the heat alone, embrace that. Set up drinks near the grill and start the party with a grilled appetizer like shrimp with a dipping sauce.


Never say "no" to help

Whenever someone asks to bring something to his parties, Acevedo always replies "Ice!" There is never too much ice at a backyard barbecue, but hosts should never turn down offers to bring food or help at the party. "My general theme is all about lightening your load," says Reinhardt.


Invest in a digital thermometer

Managing time and temperature are the most important aspects of grilling, says Meathead Goldwyn, a barbecue aficionado from Brookfield, who created the grilling website (Goldwyn, who says everyone calls him "Meathead," won't reveal his given name.)

"By far the most important thing you can do is spend $25 on a quality digital thermometer, from both a safety standpoint and a quality standpoint," Goldwyn says.


Watch the heat

The sure way to become a grill master is to create a hot and cool zone on your grill, Goldwyn says. This way some meats can cook slower and longer and other meats can be seared hot and fast. For a gas grill, turn two burners on high on one side, and turn two burners on low or off on the other side. For charcoal grills, stack charcoal high on one side and low on the other.


Practice makes perfect...or closer to perfect

Become a grill master by getting to know your grill or smoker, says Goldwyn.

Using a digital thermometer, determine which areas of the grill are hottest and coolest. Another method is to place white bread on different areas of the grill. Heat the grill at different temperatures and certain areas of the grill will brown the bread faster.

Before the party, practice cooking various meats on the grill or smoker. Not only will you figure out the ideal grill temperature and cooking time, but you can experiment with seasonings. Also try out any new recipes before serving them at a party.

"I'm a big fan of practice runs," says Barry Sortman, owner and chef at Smoque BBQ in Chicago.


Bring on the games

Depending upon your yard size, set up a variety of games for kids and adults. Volleyball, croquet and badminton are fun games to involve a number of people at once. Bocce Ball, horseshoes and Blongo Balls (also known as ladder ball and a variety of other names) are other good games. A craft table works for kids, says Reinhardt.


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