How to Plan a BBQ for a Large Party

A casual outdoor party for a large crowd doesn’t have to be stressful. If you want to enjoy the party you’re hosting and have time to talk to your guests, a plan will get you to get organized.

I host parties and major holidays every year including barbecues, outdoor parties, and Thanksgiving. Sometimes the timing was perfect, and I had time to spend with family and friends instead of cooking during the party. And other times I felt stressed and unprepared even though I planned everything.

Through trial and error and post-party debriefs, I came up with a strategy for hosting a stress-free BBQ for a large party.

In this article, learn how to plan a BBQ with tips to get organized so you can have time to spend with friends and family during the party.

Decide What Equipment to Use

Are you doing all the cooking outside or a combination of grill, coal barbecue, range, and small appliances?

Before, you make your menu consider what equipment you have and what’s the most practical option for the season. For example, my family knows the oven doesn’t go on in the summer unless I’m baking a pie.

Don’t overlook tools like the Instant Pot or a Crock Pot to cook side dishes in advance or while you’re grilling.

There is an endless amount of side dishes you can make with these small appliances. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Slow cooker – mac and cheese, pulled pork*, “baked” potatoes (sweet or white), cheese sauces, hot dips, and appetizers such as sweet and sour meatballs.
  • Instant Pot – corn on the cob, mac and cheese, baked beans, potato salad,
  • Air Fryer – sweet potato fries, okra, potato wedges, biscuits

*While you can’t replicate the smoky flavor that you get with slow-cooking meat on the grill, you can use a crock pot to cook fatty meats slow and low.

Plan the BBQ Menu

Once you have the guest list, consider food allergies or preferences you’re aware of. Don’t worry. You can still plan a menu even if you don’t know what your guests like to eat.

It’s hard to know ahead of time how much your guests will eat. A general rule of thumb that works, is to figure approximately two servings of BBQ for each adult and teen, and one serving for each for kids.

Here’s an example:

If you plan to serve hamburgers and hotdogs, estimate 2 hamburgers and 2 hotdogs for each adult. It’s unlikely they’ll eat all four servings, but you don’t know if they’ll want one of each two of one.

Before you grill, you might want to ask people which they’d prefer. Then, throw a few extra on in case someone changes their mind.

What About Food Allergies and Preferences?

You won’t always know ahead of time whether your guests have food allergies or avoid certain foods for health reasons or lifestyle diets.

Having a variety of main courses and sides is the best way to accommodate a variety of food preferences.

When it comes to food allergies, particularly nut allergies, the safest thing to do is to avoid serving nuts. Or, if you do serve something with nuts, make sure you avoid cross-contamination during prep or serving.

Here’s how to plan a variety of foods to satisfy different tastes.

Corn cobs and vegetable kebabs on grill.

Select a Variety of Main Courses and Side Dishes

Outdoor barbecues don’t have to be an all-meat affair.

Whether you like to keep things simple with hamburgers and hotdogs or you’re a grill master, it’s a good idea to prepare meat-free options for vegetarian or vegan guests. And try to coordinate the appetizers and side dishes with the main course so you get a variety of ingredients.

Main course

It would be a lot of work to accommodate a large crowd with multiple main courses. Instead, if meat is your main course, stick to one red meat or pork option and one BBQ chicken, turkey, or fish option for non-red meat-eating guests.

Then, fill in the rest of the menu with meat-free appetizers and side dishes. The food served before and with the main course is where you can get creative and offer options that everyone can choose from.

Side dishes

The best part about barbeque side dishes is they’re mostly cold dishes that can be prepared in advance.

Here are some ideas grouped by food type.

Grains or starchy foods: mac and cheese, baked Beans, cornbread, potato salad, couscous tabbouleh salad, zucchini bread, sweet potato fries (in an air fryer).

Non-starchy vegetables: Grilled vegetables (bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and asparagus, seasoned with olive oil, herbs, and spices), coleslaw, grilled portobello mushrooms (marinated in balsamic vinegar and herbs), cucumber salad (cucumber slices, red onions, tomatoes, and a vinaigrette), grilled asparagus. For a no-cook green veggie side, make a large salad with chopped vegetables.

Other veggies: And, of course, grilled corn on the cob. Brush corn with melted butter and your favorite BBQ seasoning, then grill until tender and slightly charred. Or grill unhusked corn but this can be a bit of a mess for your guests when it’s time to shuck the cooked corn.

Appetizers

The pre-meal spread is part of the overall meal, and it serves two main purposes: it’s food for hungry guests when they arrive, and it complements the main meal (and should not be more of the same).

For example, if you have a meat and starch-heavy main meal, this is when you’d serve lighter small bites. And if you have cheesy side dishes, then lay off the cheese before the meal.

Typically, we think of appetizers as whetting the appetite before a meal. But the true magic of an appetizer is that it can be filling so hosts don’t need to buy and cook more of the main course.

If you’re ever worried the menu, you prepared isn’t enough food, focus on the appetizers. That way you don’t run out of food during the main course.

Here are some appetizer ideas:

  • Grilled Watermelon Skewers: Thread chunks of watermelon onto skewers, grill them briefly to caramelize the sugars, then sprinkle with feta cheese and fresh mint.
  • Veggie Platter: Grill a variety of vegetables such as bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and asparagus, then serve with a dipping sauce like hummus or ranch.
  • Nachos: Layer tortilla chips with pulled pork or shredded BBQ chicken, cheese, jalapeños, and BBQ sauce, then grill until the cheese is melted and bubbly.
  • Bruschetta: Top grilled baguette slices with diced tomatoes, red onions, fresh basil, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze.
  • Caprese salad sticks: alternate cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls on a skewer. Drizzle with olive oil and fresh basil.

Desserts

Anything goes but I recommend avoiding a lot of desserts that require refrigeration. You might not have the space in the refrigerator on the party day. And cold desserts sitting outside on the buffet table lose their appeal.

How to Prep Ahead for the BBQ

The day before:

Prepare marinades or rubs for the meats and refrigerate them overnight. This not only enhances the taste but also tenderizes the meat, making it even more enjoyable when cooked.

Pre-cut vegetables, wash salads, and prepare any make-ahead dishes: Simplify your cooking day by doing some prep work in advance. Cut up vegetables and store them, wash your salad greens, and prepare any dishes that can be made ahead of time. This frees up your time during the BBQ and takes the stress out of grilling for a crowd.

Don’t forget the paper goods and servings spoons. An easy hack is to pull everything you’ll need out and group them together.

Drinks: cups, coolers, ice buckets, ice scoops, drink mixers, bottle and can openers, coffee maker and anything you need to serve coffee and tea.

Cooking and serving: grill tools, serving spoons (make sure you have enough), serving platters and trays, dishes, napkins, and utensils.

Condiments: make a list and group together unopened condiments.

Don’t forget to clean the coolers, tables, and chairs!

The day of the BBQ:

Before you start cooking, organize all your ingredients so they’re grouped together based on recipes. You can create meal kits with everything you need to prepare each food. For example, you might group together the barbeque sauce, a brush, and a bowl for the sauce.

Don’t forget to get ice!

Coordinate Cooking and Grilling

Planning the cooking order is essential for a successful BBQ. Decide which dishes require more time and start with those first. Consider the grill space and cooking times, ensuring that each item will be ready to serve together. By strategizing the order of cooking, you’ll avoid last-minute rushes and serve a well-timed, delicious feast.

Before grilling, preheat your grill to the temperature for the dishes you’re preparing. And make sure your grill grates are clean and free of debris and mold to prevent sticking and debris from catching fire.

Follow cooking instructions and temperature guidelines for each dish to ensure your food is safe to eat and cooked to perfection. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature and avoid undercooked or overcooked food.

Use a timer to keep track of cooking durations and avoid the risk of overcooking or undercooking your dishes.

When cooking meat, follow these USDA guidelines for safety:

  • For beef, pork, lamb, and veal steaks, chops, and roasts, cook them to at least 145 °F (63 °C) using a food thermometer before taking them off the heat.
  • Ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 °F (71 °C) to make sure it’s safe to eat.
  • Poultry needs to be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F (74 °C) to keep things safe and delicious.
Buffet table next to grill.

How To Set Up a BBQ Buffet Table

If you’ve ever stayed at a hotel that had complimentary breakfast with waffle stations and a toaster you know what an inefficiently set up buffet feels like.

A buffet is the most convenient way to serve food at large informal gatherings. But a poorly set up buffet can be frustrating and creates unnecessary gridlock.

Here are some tips for setting up your buffet table.

  • Make sure all condiments, containers and food packages are unsealed.
  • Set up the drink station away from the food table.
  • Keep the plates on one end to signal which direction the buffet should move in.
  • Keep the napkins, utensils and even condiments on the tables.
  • Have enough serving spoons available.
  • If something on the menu takes extra time to prep like shucking corn, have a separate table for that away from the buffet. Make sure all the necessary tools including a garbage pail are also there.
  • Set up several garbage and recycling pails. I usually put a large one up away from where people are eating, then set up one or two smaller pails by the tables.
  • Have clean-up supplies like paper towels and a spray cleanser available. (Tip: attach a paper towel holder to the drink table.)
  • Keep the food under a tent or umbrella, out of direct sunlight. According to the USDA, bacteria grow rapidly in temperatures above 90 °F. So, if your BBQ lands on a day when the temperature is above 90 °F, don’t leave the food out for more than 1 hour.
  • The “danger zone” is between 40 °F and 140 °F (that’s about 4 °C to 60 °C) when bacteria grow rapidly in food. Don’t leave food out at that temperature for more than 2 hours. You can hold hot food in sterno serving trays at a temperature above 140 °F to prevent bacterial growth.

Barbeques can be easy and casual parties if you’re prepared and most of the food is prepped ahead.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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