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Tips for planning the perfect summer BBQ menu

There’s nothing like the smell of the grill wafting on a warm summer breeze, and it’s made even better when accompanied by your nearest and dearest gathered together to cook, eat, and enjoy time together. That would explain why more than half of Americans agree that outdoor barbecues are the ideal venue for summer gatherings, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Bush’s Beans (via Yahoo! News). 

This opportunity to host a cookout is the perfect time to dust off the tongs, don your favorite apron, and get creative with your summer barbecue menu. When it comes to your backyard celebrations, you don’t need to get stuck in a rut of hamburgers, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. There are plenty of ways to impress with delicious and inventive dishes by branching out and exploring new ingredients, cuisines, or even serving methods. And it all starts with a plan.

Plan ahead with a theme or cuisine

Top-down view of Fourth of July foods

Pulling off the ultimate summer barbecue menu benefits from a little advanced planning. An easy place to start is by choosing a theme or cuisine to help guide your food choices. Maybe if your cookout is on Fourth of July weekend, you choose a “stars and stripes” theme, where regional styles of American BBQ are complemented by red, white, and blue sides, drinks, and desserts. 

Your menu in that case might include apple cider smoked pulled pork with red, white, and blue potato salad, blue Hawaiian cocktails, and strawberry shortcake. Or, maybe a “by the sea” event speaks to you, with options such as grilled shrimp with charred corn and mango salsa, grilled watermelon salad, and Sea Breeze cocktails. Another angle is to take inspiration from one of the many other countries around the world where barbecue reigns supreme. 

A few great cuisines to kick off your exploration are Korean BBQ (which is surprisingly simple to cook at home), Argentinian asado (which is unique among styles of grilling), and Indian tandoor (which is an ancient method that uses traditional clay ovens heated by charcoal). No matter what direction you take, spending a bit of time planning ahead means less stress for you on the day of the event (all the better for enjoying the company of your guests), and provides a great jumping off point for deciding on your main dish.

Choose a mouthwatering main dish

Barbecued ribs and sauce brush on a cutting board

Once you’ve decided on a theme, it’s time to select a main dish to center the meal. It’s nice (but not necessary) to have two options for meats — perhaps fall-off-the-bone ribs (made using the 3-2-1 grilling method) and bourbon-chile barbecue grilled chicken. Some other showstopping mains are grilled tri-tip with blackberry mustard, Jamaican jerk chicken, and Cajun grilled salmon. 

Also, while sides can typically make a meal in itself for any vegetarians in attendance, your non-meat-eating friends will be extra appreciative if you have a main dish for them as well. Something simple like stuffed and grilled portobello mushrooms, which come recommended by BBQ champ Chris Lilly, is a great option, here.

When it comes time to serve, we like a large wooden cutting board — like the John Boos Block Maple Wood Oval Cutting Board with Juice Groove, which we ranked the best overall on our list of the best cutting boards of 2023 – for plating cuts of meat. You can slice your meats into manageable portions right on the board, and it’s visually appealing as well. For sandwiches like hamburgers and hot dogs, a large platter works nicely – or you can simply invite folks to come by the grill with their plates.

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Go potluck style with sides

Potato salad in a white bowl

Barbecues are one type of meal where everyone expects to bring something, so take advantage of that and ask guests to bring sides to share. Depending on how tight you want your menu to be, you can either keep things freeform and let people bring whatever suits their fancy, or you can ask them to bring a specific type of dish (for example, “some sort of potato salad”). In either case, don’t forget to share your theme for guidance!

If you go the route of providing more direction, we generally like to have various types of sides to balance the menu. A potato salad like classic Southern potato salad or French potato salad is almost non-negotiable, while bean salads like jalapeño-lime three bean salad or Moroccan chickpea salad and hearty veggie salads like the best broccoli salad can round things out. Cold sides are easier for guests to bring and simpler to serve, but you could also add your own hot side such as slow cooker baked beans, which can be served directly out of the slow cooker to keep them at a palatable temp.

Don’t forget the drinks

Mint limeade in a jar glass

Julie208/Shutterstock

Offering an array of drinks, both alcoholic and not, is a crucial component to any successful gathering. First and foremost, fill several carafes or pitchers with ice water and place them on various surfaces that are easy to spot. Also, don’t be shy when it comes to asking your guests to contribute some simple bevvies, such as beer or sparkling water. Just be sure to have a cooler or bucket filled with ice to keep all the drinks cold. Throw the perfect bottle of rosé (our top pick is Epoch Estate rosé) and some white wine for spritzing in there, too.

Signature cocktails and mocktails will take your BBQ to the next level, ideally something you can serve in a pitcher so you’re not stuck playing bartender. A simple mint limeade is a crowd pleaser, and you can serve it with vodka or gin on the side so people can pick their poison or opt for a booze-free sipper. For fruity punch-like options that aren’t too sweet, go for watermelon Mojitos, sparkling strawberry Sangria, or grown-up Jungle Juice.

End on a sweet note

Peach cobbler with ice cream

No cookout is complete without a dessert or two to top things off. For summer, incorporating in-season fruits such as melons, stone fruits, and berries really brings the menu home. Even a simple mint and melon fruit salad can be the perfect sweet ending, or how about the more trendy watermelon pie? For options that don’t need to be kept chilled, try white chocolate raspberry cookies or blackberry peach cobbler.

The great thing about desserts here is you can make most of them a day or two in advance, which means less work the day of. And perhaps even better, there are tons of no-bake desserts that are perfect for summer – so many BBQ-friendly options come together without needing to turn on your oven (like no-bake salted chocolate cheesecake and strawberry marshmallow fudge). Bonus: People love to bring dessert, so take advantage of any offers and enjoy more free time to have fun at the party!

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