Hosting a Summer Bash: How to Have the Best Barbecue Party on the Block

We connected with Danielle Kuhn, professional event planner and the founder of Ohana Events, to learn how to set up a backyard party for success.

The sun is out, summer is in full swing. It’s time to celebrate friends and good vibrations.

What better way to do so than with a killer backyard barbecue party? It can be lavish and catered or simple and DIY. Either way, Danielle Kuhn, professional event planner and the founder of Ohana Events, has great advice for setting up a successful gathering to ensure both guests and hosts have an absolute blast.

Whether it’s a crazy, 100-person backyard blowout or a casual, intimate weekend party, Kuhn says it’s important to plan ahead for everything. No matter the size of the party, it’s critical to establish the space, guest list, menu and activities.

Setting the Scene

Before planning who to invite, consider how much space is available for guests. Plan for enough seating and organize the space so guests can move around freely, even in close quarters. Kuhn said that one of the best party layouts is a cocktail-style event in which there are high-top tables throughout the space with seating around the outside perimeter. Providing benches or chairs around the edge of the space ensures no one is in the way of traffic.

Set up tables, chairs, decorations and games the day before the party. Kuhn said that preparing the area ahead of time means less stress on the day of the event, emphasizing that it’s important to clear out all unnecessary junk and repurpose outdoor fixtures. She gave the example of repurposing a hose house with a lid or an immovable storage container as a side-table in which a bucket for drinks could be placed. Whatever the layout, she emphasized that the whole idea of rearranging is to make sure there is always enough space.

On the Guest List

Draw up a guest list remembering that not everyone may be able to attend. Kuhn recommended creating a personal percentage buffer when sending invitations, as some guests may have kids involved in sports, or someone might bring a friend or significant other that was previously unaccounted for.

“Food preparation is crucial for any event,” said Kuhn. “So, if you know before going to the store how many people have RSVP’d, it’s easier to know how much you’ll need to buy—while taking into consideration that some guests may not eat a full portion or are unable to eat specific foods due to dietary restrictions. Or, you may have the opposite, where some guests eat multiple portions during one sitting. There is no perfect science behind food calculation, but you have to put your mind in your guests’ shoes to evaluate what you think will be the most popular dishes. For example, on a hot summer day, watermelon and chilled pasta salad will be more popular than a steaming hot side dish. Either way, I always recommend invitations with RSVPs so a host can plan in advance.” Consider invitations in which guests can indicate what they’ll eat.

Even with today’s digital takeover, at least a week before the cook-out is an ideal time to send out invitations. Ditch the instant gratification of Snapchat and settle for something more relaxed and personal like an e-vite, a Facebook private event, phone call or personalized text message. Use technology with reminders (especially for those busy friends) and apps that allow guests to communicate with you freely. An event reminder is the best way to ensure that guests don’t forget about the event and can also provide a means to remind them to RSVP.

Grub Time!

The focal point, according to Kuhn, should be the food.

“In my event planning experience, the food is what people remember most about a gathering,” said Kuhn. “It’s important to have a range of food to account for everyone. Having an interactive food station, such as a make-your-own ice cream sundae bar, or having an exciting food display, like soft pretzels hanging from wires or an expansive Bloody Mary bar, is fun for guests to take pictures of and provides a topic of conversation.”

Kuhn said that while creating your menu, it’s important to have a variety of foods to account for everyone's taste preferences. Make sure there’s enough variation between dishes and you have food that aligns with common dietary restrictions, like gluten and peanut allergies. Labeling your buffet station, including those dietary notes, helps relieve the host of answering a million questions.

Also be sure to provide foods that aren’t too messy so people can hold them in their hands without needing 10 napkins. You can even opt for plates with drink holders!

Kuhn said that keeping food at the center of a space and displaying it purposefully is important. One of the easiest ways to display food is with a buffet in a centralized area, ensuring that guests don’t miss any dishes or have to walk across the whole space to get what they want.

Identify if any dishes can be left out, need refrigeration or may take a while to grill or cook. The last thing guests want is to wait for a particular dish or for only one dish to come out at a time; it’s better to bring all dishes out at the same time. The best way to plan for this? Prepare as much as possible ahead of time, such as pre-forming patties and slicing tomatoes. This allows the host to actually enjoy themselves during the party.

The best recipes for success are burgers, ribs and chicken entrees with bountiful sides. Kuhn said that a potluck style can help alleviate pressure on the host. She stated that even if hosts opt to have a potluck, they need to supply the main protein dishes and have a few extra sides in case someone forgets or doesn’t bring enough. It’s better to ask guests at the end of the night what leftovers they’d like to take with them than to have guests complain they didn’t have enough to eat.

It’s All Fun and Games

Food may be what brings the people together, but the activities and music are what make them stay. Planning plenty of events for all age ranges at the gathering is important—and having a soundtrack for summer doesn’t hurt either. Kuhn emphasized that music is key to any successful event. Whether it’s live music or an iPod in the background on mini speaker, music always enhances an atmosphere.

Hosting kids, teenagers and adults means offering a variety of activities. Kuhn said that bags, oversized Jenga, a giant game of chess, giant Connect Four and more are easy DIY projects and a great way to keep the party going. If there are kids, Kuhn recommends having games and crafts that are not too difficult and require parents to be taken away from the main hub of the party.

If there’s enough room and it’s hot enough, plan for water games away from the food area. Games like a water balloon toss as a designated time, such as 2:00 p.m., will excite people and make them want to stay, according to Kuhn. She noted that centralized activities and spaced-out events (like a raffle) are a good way to keep people around and engaged.

Cue Wonderwall

Whether hanging out with friends on a cozy backyard patio or planted in a field with a bonfire and live music, Kuhn’s lasting reminder for hosts of a killer barbecue party is to prepare ahead of time so they can enjoy the company. Ensuring that there is enough ice and food, guests are kept cool on a hot summer day, and there are plenty of fun activities and a long, awesome playlist are critical factors to having a gathering that’s sure to shut the neighborhood down.