Suns out, grills out! The summer is time for backyard cookouts and barbeque goodness. It’s a time for fun with friends and deliciously smoky, sweet, and spicy food. Combine the food with a few vivacious libations and it’s almost impossible not to have a good time.
But a good BBQ party can also be a lot of work for the host. You don’t have to have the most extravagant setting or the deepest menu, but several essential elements should be included to ensure the party is right in that sweet spot.
Not to worry though, our BBQ checklist has you covered. From meats to sides to sauces and drinks, we will lay out several options to make your barbeque a can’t miss event.
You can’t make great BBQ without the right cooking vessel. The verb barbeque technically means to cook some sort of meat over an open flame. So if you’re going to have a BBQ party, you need to have a grill or a smoker, preferably both.
We all know and love the ubiquitous grill. Found in many shapes and styles, you really can’t go wrong with any. The two most common options are a traditional charcoal grill or a gas grill.
Charcoal grills are cheaper but require more time, practice, and skill. Some say they provide a more pure and authentic barbeque flavor due to the charcoals providing the flame and smoke flavor over propane gas, but the difference can be negligible if you season and cook your meat correctly. Charcoal grills take longer to heat up, and more practice to keep the grill at the right temperature and cook the meats over direct or indirect heat. But they provide a delicious result when done right.
Gas or propane grills produce heat and flame through fuel and usually have a couple of burners to heat the grill surface evenly. They are easier to operate and clean but can be viewed as a shortcut by some purists. Whichever grill you choose, just use it often to know how to grill like a pro.
Barbeques also often have smoked meat, like ribs or brisket or pulled pork. For that, you need a smoker. A smoker is basically a slow cooker over an open flame. There are traditional smokers that use some combo of charcoal and wood. And there are electric smokers that usually use wood chips for the smoke and electricity or gas for the flame.
Smokers can take even more time to master than a grill, as the key is getting it to the right temperature and keeping it there for long periods. That is why it is important to not skimp on the cost of your smoker if you choose to buy one.
I’m not trying to plug a brand here, but Weber has never let me down in all my years of barbequing. Not that other brands fall short, but I believe they make quality products that last a long time, just if you’re looking for a basis to start your smoky meat mastery.
A few other things we recommend having on hand for some BBQ prep are tongs, spatulas, a meat thermometer (super handy for proper grilling and a must for smoking), cutting board, aluminum foil, and platters or foil pans for serving and prepping. An insulated food bag might also come in handy.
Cooking Equipment Checklist:
- Spatula, preferably metal for the grill
- Digital meat thermometer
- Cutting board
- Aluminum foil
- Platters or foil pans
BBQ parties are not meant to be fancy (if you’re doing it right), so your plates and utensils and cups should usually be more about function over form. Paper plates and bowls and plastic cups and utensils make for a substantially easier cleanup, but if you prefer to use your own dishes you can.
You want to make sure the plates and bowls have enough strength to hold the mounds of delectable food each person will have. And you want to make sure the utensils can handle all the meat provided. So don’t be too chintzy when purchasing your settings. You also want to provide plenty of napkins for the saucy goodness left on everybody’s fingers.
Table Settings Checklist:
Before we get into the foods, it is important to remember to stay safe at BBQ parties. A little (or a lot) of alcohol in large groups can lead to complications, so be smart when participating in party events.
You also want to always know how to operate your grill or smoker properly and how to turn them off or distinguish any unwanted flames. You’re literally playing with fire at a barbeque, so be sure to know how to manage it.
Another safety issue to keep in mind is proper sanitation and food preparation. If people get sick after your BBQ due to your food, it will probably be the last time they show up for your cooking. So make sure you clean utensils that handle raw meat and don’t use them in other dishes. And cook and store your cooked food to proper temperatures.
The last thing to remember is to sunscreen it up. BBQ parties often happen outdoors for long hours. And we all like that tan summer bod, but none of us want to become a wrinkly prune at 50 or even worse, get some sort of melanoma. Don’t be dumb, use sunscreen.
Now onto the main attraction. The show stopper. The manly meats. The main dishes. At a BBQ you should be thinking meats of some variety. And you can go so many different routes. Just remember that you are probably cooking for many people, so don’t overwhelm yourself with too much variety. Keep it to one or two main meats and do them well. No more is needed.
I’ll describe some options and how to make them interesting, then provide a list at the end with recipe links for each list item.
Burgers and Dogs
For a simple and classic BBQ cookout, you can never go wrong with burgers and dogs or sausages. This is definitely the easiest option to take, but it doesn’t have to be boring or simple. Be sure to get some good quality hotdogs and sausages, and the sausages don’t have to be your normal bratwurst or hot Italian. You can go with basil feta sausage, or French apple sausage, or anything that sounds interesting. Then you pair with some good mustards or dipping sauces and boom, it’s interesting.
For burgers, the number one rule to stick to is not to use frozen patties. Fresh ground beef formed into your own patties blows frozen ones out of the water. And it’s not difficult at all. You can get some decent quality ground beef, form them into patties, and season them with salt and pepper and a little garlic when you throw them on the grill. Or you can season them before you form them with anything you like. An Asian seasoning mix of ginger and coriander and sriracha is awesome. You can make them Mediterranean with some feta and oregano and garlic. You can go Mexican with cumin and sugar and chili powder. Burgers are so versatile.
Or you can stick to a simple beef patty and make the toppings and accouterment exotic and lively. Grilled mushrooms or guacamole and bacon or citrusy slaw all turn a burger from standard to memorable. Don’t be scared to try new things on a burger. It’s easy and delicious.
Surf and Turf
Some people like to cook steaks for a barbeque party. While this can be unique and of course tasty, steaks are often more expensive than anything else you buy. And on top of that, you will be on the grill making steaks to order for a significant portion of your party. Other options in this article allow you to have most of the meats cooked before the party and then you can enjoy your spread. If you do want to do steaks, our meat prep article is a great guide for how to execute properly. It also provided some other relevant meat cooking tips for a cookout.
Fish or shrimp are also a unique option, but much more expensive than other meats. They also typically don’t serve or keep as well as other meats. So if you opt for seafood, I recommend going for something simple like tacos and make an interesting chopped salad or slaw or aioli to top them with.
Chicken is a classic BBQ meat, and pleasing to almost everyone. You can opt for boneless breasts or tenderloins, or you can go for legs and thighs, skin on, bone-in. both are quite different and equally delicious. You can also smoke whole chickens or chicken pieces, but that is an entirely different process.
I prefer to marinate in some sort of BBQ dry rub for a few hours or overnight, whether you’re doing breasts or pieces. BBQ dry rubs are great because you can change them and experiment however you like and still have a great dish. So after you rub them, have your favorite sauce handy to glaze with as you’re grilling.
If you’re doing breasts or tenderloins, it’s quick and fast. Grill to medium heat, chicken on, glaze the top side. After a few minutes, flip, glaze the other side and cook until finished. Easy. If you’re doing pieces, it’s about a sear and then low and slow after that. Turn your grill to medium-high heat, put the pieces on the grill and get the skin crispy on all side, turning occasionally, about every 2-3 minutes. Then turn the grill to low and let them finish cooking for about 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes or so. Glaze the chicken pieces at the end and you’re good to go.
Ribs are another barbeque classic, but take much more practice and time to get right and stay tender and juicy. Ribs take a lot of prep work and time to make. But the reward is oh so great. You can grill them, bake them, or smoke them. I believe the absolute best way, by far, is smoking them. Once again smoking is a detailed and practiced method, I won’t get into all of it here. For some excellent smoking recipes and general smoking tips, check out The Virtual Weber Bullet. It’s a great community site.
Ribs on the grill are about indirect heat and steaming, then crisping at the end. You need a fairly large grill, either gas or charcoal, to fit a rack of ribs, as it will only be on one half of the grill. So, turn one burner on high and one on low, or have the charcoals on one half of the grill only. Have your ribs dry rubbed and wrapped tightly in foil, and put them on the side without any heat and close the lid. Let them cook and steam for about an hour. If you want to open the foil and add some apple juice or soda that’s fine, but not necessary. After an hour, take the ribs out, sauce them on the meaty side, and grill them on direct heat for 5-10 minutes to add a crust and bark and then you’re done.
This process could take longer depending on the size of the ribs, whether you’re using St. Louis or baby back, and how hot your grill actually is. That’s why ribs take practice and more practice. When done right they fall off the bone. When done wrong, they are dry and chewy and rather unpleasant. So if you’re taking on ribs for a BBQ, make sure it’s not your first time.
Smoked Brisket, Pulled Pork, or Chuck Roast
Traditional American barbeque at a restaurant often has brisket or pulled pork. And these are always cooked low and slow in a smoker. They are large cuts of meat that take a long time to break down and make tender and juicy. Brisket can be cooked to either slice or pull. And pulled pork is always pulled, duh. Pulled just means shredded, in case you didn’t know.
Basically, for these meats, you need hours of cooking time, so if you’re having your party early, you’ll need to start the smoker very early or possibly even the night before. They take a lot of patience, but if you are in to or want to get into smoking, the reward is off the charts amazing. And once you get the meats on the smoker, with only a little management, you are basically done making the meats until they hit optimal internal temperature and are ready to serve. You can spend the free time making your side dishes or prepping the yard or just having a beer.
Once again, I’ll refer to the Virtual Weber Bullet website for tips on smoking meats. Maybe we’ll have an article in the future all about smoking meats as well.
Unique Grilling Ideas
Not all BBQ has to be traditional or normal or simple. A grill is just an open flame with a rack to cook on. You can make so many dishes there and the flame will give them a flavor unique from any other cooking method. So if you have an idea or hear something interesting, give it a shot.
If you want a vegetarian option, grilled veggie medleys or skewers are always a hit and delicious. Grilled portobello mushrooms are something you need in your life if you haven’t tied them already. Both provide something delicious and include any vegetarians at your BBQ party.
You can also try things like grilled pizza or grilled quesadillas or grilled, stuffed peppers. The possibilities are almost endless. You just need to make sure whatever you’re cooking doesn’t burn incredibly easy or fall through the grill grates because it’s too small or too fluid.
Barbeque parties are great because you can be bold. Or you can stick to the classics. The key is to cook them right and your guests will enjoy the fact that you are providing them this great party and food, especially with a few drinks around as well.
BBQ Main Dish Options (click on food for recipe link):
- Burgers, dogs, sausages
- Fish or Shrimp
- BBQ Chicken
- BBQ Ribs
- Brisket, Pulled Pork, Chuck Roast
- Veggie Skewers or Grilled Portobellos
- Grilled Pizza or Quesadillas or other unique options
As amazing as those meaty main dishes can be, many people come to a barbeque just for the sides. So don’t overlook them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be simple, they should just not be boring. And store-bought salads or slaws just don’t even compare. So get ready to cook some more, folks!
BBQ sides should complement the main dish well, sometimes even being served on the meat such as a slaw or chopped salad. They are frequently served cold and act as a refreshing change of pace to the smoky barbecued meats.
They can also often be worse for your gut than the main dishes. Which isn’t always a bad thing because BBQ meat is often not overly bad for you if consumed in moderation. They are just meat with a little sugar and spice on them, no carbs or dairy or anything super bad for you. But, if you don’t want the health bomb of potato or pasta salad on the menu, we’ll suggest several healthier alternatives as well.
My personal favorite BBQ side dish is potato salad, though pasta salad and grilled corn are not far behind. There is just something undeniably perfect about the tangy, crunchy, savory potato salad flavor that goes with those sweet, smoky meats. It goes with every main dish mentioned earlier. And there are so many varieties and ways you can play with potato salad. Just please make sure that it doesn’t have too much mayonnaise. That ruins it. Have a healthy balance of mustard or vinegar or tang to make sure the salad isn’t bland.
Pasta salad may be even worse for you than potato salad, but the right one will make it impossible to not go back for seconds. And it’s just as versatile. I prefer a dressing on it without any mayo. Keep it lighter with a homemade citrus vinaigrette and it will sing in your mouth. You can grill the veggies in it to make it smokier. Or you can add sharp cheddar cheese chunks to make it pop. Don’t overlook the pasta salad!
Grilled corn is so simple it’s stupid. And amazing. Pick some nice ears, shuck and clean them, and throw them on the grill until they are charred and sweet and undeniable. You can serve them as is or with some butter and salt and pepper. Or you can add some chili powder and cotija cheese for a spicy, salty combo. Or you can add the grilled corn kernels to your pasta salad or a grilled veggie medley. You can’t go wrong.
Coleslaw is a great barbeque side dish because it can be simple, light, cheap, and surprisingly versatile. Many BBQ slaws are made with a mayo dressing, but I think a much better option is one made with a citrus vinaigrette type dressing. It’s lighter and more refreshing and much better if served as part of a BBQ sandwich.
BBQ Baked Beans
Barbeque beans are not as simple as you think. They take several steps if done right but can be so amazing when they are. Always try to make the beans from scratch if possible, as the difference from canned beans is stark.
The simplified process is to make the beans first. Then add in some sautéed bacon and peppers and onions. Then add some BBQ sauce, BBQ rub, tomato sauce, mustard, and other stuff and bake for a few hours to combine the flavors. There will be a full recipe link in the checklist part of this section.
Fruits and Veggies
BBQ side dishes can be as simple as chopping some watermelon and adding some blueberries to the bowl. Or have a fresh, crisp veggie tray with some cool dipping sauces to accompany them. Things like this that nature provides perfectly as is can be incredibly refreshing. Just be sure that the fruit or vegetables you choose to serve are fresh and high quality.
Grilled or Chopped Salads
Homemade chopped salads take more work than you think as well, even though they can be simple enough. They just require more chopping and steps than you think. But they can be so delightful and bright and unique and memorable.
Grill some squash and corn and onions and throw in some cilantro and lime for grilled calabacitas. Or chop some tomatoes, avocado, peppers, cucumber, and onion and add some lemon and olive oil for a creamy chopped salad. There are endless variations you can search on the internet. They can be side dishes or be part of a sandwich or taco. They just work. Give some a try.
Chips, Rolls, or Bread
These are the carbiest of carb options but almost always a crowd-pleaser. If you go for the chips option, be sure to have some homemade salsa or guacamole for a unique element. If you’re a master baker and create some great rolls or a loaf of bread, be sure to have another side dish like a chopped salad or veggie tray as well. We all need those vitamins and nutrients under the hot sun.
Side dishes can be the star and the most memorable food of your entire BBQ party. So don’t completely overlook them when deciding what to serve to your peeps.
Side Dish Checklist (once again, recipe links provided):
- Potato Salad
- Pasta Salad
- Grilled Corn
- BBQ Beans
- Fruit or Veggie Medley
- Grilled Salad or Chopped Salad
- Chips, Rolls, or Bread
Fixins are what your offer for people to put on their sandwich or bun or anything in between. They are basically toppings that aren’t condiments or sauces. The first one to remember is the bun itself. No buns, no fun, hon’.
If you are serving burgers be sure to have some sliced cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, and maybe some sautéed mushrooms or some bacon.
If you are serving dogs or sausages some grilled onions or peppers can be a nice touch. Or maybe some pickles and chopped onions and tomatoes for some infamous Hicag dogs.
For a BBQ meat sandwich like pulled pork or brisket, some slaw can be a wonderful compliment to the sweet meat.
Just remember not to have an insane amount of fixins available as leftovers often go to waste. And food waste is bad and easily preventable, buddy.
- Sliced cheese
- Sliced tomatoes
- Sliced or chopped onions
- Sautéed mushrooms
Sauces and Condiments
Sauces and condiments are also a must for a good BBQ party. They give people the option to make their food the way the like it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t judge.
Barbeque sauce is the most obvious and first condiment you should consider. And homemade BBQ sauce is not as hard as you think. You just have to have several ingredients available to use. Because barbeque sauce is basically a throw a bunch of whatever you want in a pot and cook it sauce. You will always need some tomato and sugar, but after that, it’s all good.
If you don’t want to make your own, there’s no shame picking up some sauce from a local joint. There are many BBQ chefs out there, and they make excellent sauces. So grab some of theirs, support local, and have one less step to worry about for your cookout.
Mustard, ketchup, mayo, relish, and some sort of hot sauce are also usual suspects that should be at most BBQ parties. No reason to make these at home unless you really love to.
If you’re going to have some chips or other things to dip, some homemade dips or aioli or salsa or guacamole or hummus can be a great and close to necessary addition to the party. They aren’t difficult to make and homemade is so much better than store-bought.
Sauces and Condiments Checklist:
No BBQ party is complete without some cool, fresh drinks. Always be sure to have plenty of water available to fight the hot sun. You could also provide some refreshing iced tea or lemonade. You could also make some spiked punch or juice of some sort if that is what vibe you’re going for.
As far as beer and wine, a great solution for your party is BYOB. Since you are providing all the food and location and such, your guests can simply bring their own alcohol of choice. Just be sure to provide a cooler and ice and a bottle opener or corkscrew to keep the liquid flowing.
- Tea or lemonade
- Punch or juice (spiked or not)
- Bottle opener
Almost everyone loves a good dessert, but not as many know how to make one. And if you are making all your other food from scratch, adding a dessert to the to-do list can just be too much. You can simply offer some ice cream variations with a couple of toppings.
Pie is usually a great option, and homemade pie is incredible. But sometimes it can be too heavy. So depending on the rest of your food, pie may not be the right choice.
You can combine the first two options and have an ice cream pie as dessert. These are fantastically delicious and a total calorie bomb.
You can also get creative and make something lighter and refreshing like a fruit pizza. This is some fresh chopped fruit served on some cream cheese or frosting spread over a sugar cookie. Simply delightful. But also some work.
Usually, people will like any dessert you provide and sometimes they aren’t even necessary as the rest of your food is going to be so amazing everyone will go back for seconds and need any more food once dessert time rolls around, right?
- Ice cream with toppings
- Ice cream pie
- Fruit pizza
- Berry medley
Yard or lawn games can be a great way to bond or compete or keep the party going. If you have the space of course. Games like cornhole or ladder toss or kan jam keep the mood and competition light and fun. Have one or two available if that’s what you and your friend enjoy.
Yard Game Suggestions:
- Ladder toss
- Kan Jam
- Bocce Ball
Barbeque parties are so much fun when done with some love and care. They bring people together to share great food and create some memorable moments. Don’t be afraid to try cooking new dishes, but remember to try not to overwhelm yourself as the host so that you can enjoy your party as well. Use some of the recipes suggested here and find some more of your own and have a great cookout. Cheers!