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

With the Fourth of July coming up quick, we have 8 tips to help Chicago families throw a perfect barbecue bash.

This may sound like a lot of work oreven a bit cheesy, but surprisingly a theme can make your lifeeasier and your party more fun. With a Mexican theme, serve grilledfish tacos, guacamole and margaritas, or serve burgers, brats andBerghoff beer for a Chicago barbecue theme, for example.

“It creates a more fun and memorableevent,” says Debi Lilly, chief eventeur ofA Perfect Event in Chicago.

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

“I always love to do a theme where people areactually bringing something that goes with it,” says Julie Reinhardt, author of She-Smoke, a book aboutbarbecuing.

Pick a theme

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

Prep food ahead of time

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

Make the grill the focal point

Whenever someone asks to bring something to hisparties, Acevedo always replies “Ice!” There is never too much ice at a backyard barbecue, buthosts should never turn down offers to bring food or help at theparty. “My general theme is all about lightening your load,”says Reinhardt.

Never say “no” to help

Managing time and temperature arethe most important aspects of grilling, says Meathead Goldwyn, abarbecue aficionado from Brookfield, who created the grilling (Goldwyn, who says everyone calls him
“Meathead,” won’t reveal his given

“By far the most important thing youcan do is spend $25 on a quality digital thermometer, from both asafety standpoint and a quality standpoint,” Goldwyn says.

Invest in a digital thermometer

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

Watch the heat

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

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

Before the party, practice cookingvarious meats on the grill or smoker. Not only will you figure outthe ideal grill temperature and cooking time, but you canexperiment with seasonings. Also try out any new recipes beforeserving them at a party.

“I’m a big fan of practiceruns,” says Barry Sortman, owner and chefat Smoque BBQ in Chicago.

Practice makes perfect…or closer to perfect

Depending upon your yard size, set up a variety of games forkids and adults. Volleyball, croquet and badminton are fun games toinvolve a number of people at once. Bocce Ball, horseshoes andBlongo Balls (also known as ladder ball and a variety of othernames) are other good games. A craft table works for kids, saysReinhardt.

Bring on the games

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