Entertaining 101: A Better Fall Barbecue

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by Heidi Arenberg, Lifestyle Editor

There comes a time in your life when you realize there’s a blurry line between throwing a party and having random scores of people take shots at your kitchen counter. It’s college, after all, and hosting a party takes work. But if you’re tired of the same old, same old (read: same old power hour, same old Nicki Minaj remixes, same old allover stickiness the next day), a bona fide, Martha-Stewart-approved bash may be just what your “Starships”-tainted brain needs.

So let’s start off simple. What better way to hang onto the last moments of summer than with a classic, All-American barbecue? And the outdoor setting ensures that your carpet will be sans spills come morning. Just follow these tips to take your shindig from sticky sleaze to smooth soiree.

Team up: Let’s face it—planning a social event is not a one-man project. So round up some friends or roommates. Also, supply and food costs add up, and you’re going to want someone to take the pressure off of your wallet. And make sure you, a co-host or a willing attendee actually knows how to grill.

Determine the size of your gathering: Yard full of friends and strangers, or low-key event with your best buds? Resolve this issue now so that your guests know whether or not they’re welcome to bring others. And size also factors into figuring out the party’s location.

Decide on your drink policy: Is your barbecue going to be BYOB, or are you feeling generous? Either way, tell your guests where drinks will be coming from ahead of time. And be sure to keep bottles of water on hand; just stow them in large buckets with ice.

One way to serve mixed drinks without all the fuss of, er, mixing is to put together a large canister of your favorite beverage ahead of time. I’m partial to pineapple rum punch (1 46oz can of pineapple juice + 2 cups of spiced rum + ½ cup of lime juice). Nothing screams summer more than tropical fruit…and rum.

 While Pinterest’s ubiquitous mason-jars-turned-cups are oh-so precious, they’re just not practical for a sizable event. If you’re expecting more than 25 guests, lean on the trusty disposable cups. They’re unbreakable, inexpensive, and fit for a barbecue—and they’ll remind you to take it easy.

Stick to an uncomplicated menu

Smitten Kitchen’s Vegetable, Watermelon, and Feta Salad (smittenkitchen.com)

I’d like to try peach soup with shrimp and crab seviche just as much as the next girl, but you’re hosting a barbecue with friends, not a gourmet dinner party with your book club. Rely on traditional favorites when creating your menu, and keep in mind the vegetarians. I’ve thrown together a sample spread (and won’t mind one bit if you copy):

  • Burgers, Hotdogs, Turkey Burgers, Bratwursts, etc.
  • Grilled Stuffed Jalapeños
  • Chopped Vegetable, Watermelon, and Feta Salad
  • Homemade Soft Pretzels
  • Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

Set a laid-back atmosphere: Establish the casualness of your party from the very start; I really don’t think written invitations are necessary, especially for a barbecue. Take the shortcut here and invite buds via e-vite, Facebook, or text.

Create a playlist for the event or rely on Pandora (it’s funny when your High School Musical tracks accidentally begin to play once, but twice is just embarrassing). Go with upbeat, universally liked artists such as M.I.A., MGMT and Vampire Weekend. And I guess a little Nicki Minaj never killed anyone.

Dress the part. There’s nothing worse than realizing how overdressed you are as your guests file in. An easy fix? Wear sneakers! Any ensemble can seem effortless (“oh, this old thing?”) with the addition of a worn-in pair of Keds.

The refinement is in the details

Target String Lights (target.com)

This is where you get to have a little creative input in your party planning. Pick a color palette, not a theme. Are navies and grays more your style, or would you rather lighten things up with some yellows and lime greens?

Etsy.com is your go-to site for affordable party décor. I’m especially a fan of Isa Kay Boutique’s paper cupcake wrappers and straws.

Spread out picnic blankets and set up card tables covered in plain white paper tablecloths. The neutral color creates a blank canvas for your own vibrant details, whether they’re chevron table runners or cherry red paper plates.

Embrace your greenery! String lights through your trees (or on your fence), and bring indoor flowerpots outside.Target offers a great selection of patio lights, most sets selling for under $20. 

And please, don’t forget the fun!

Banana BB Bats (oldtimecandy.com)

Set up leisurely games like bags and cards to stir up activity and conversation. If you’ve never played Apples to Apples, now’s the time. 

I love the idea of displaying old school candy (think rainbow lollipops and Charleston Chews) on the food table. Oldtimecandy.com has an unending selection of candies sorted by decade, so dig out some old glass jars, or buy some small mason jars—I knew they would enter the scene somehow!—to display the treats in. What’s sweeter: coordinate the hues of the candy with your designated color palette.

But seriously, even if your candy jars shatter, your burgers are undercooked, the High School Musical soundtrack starts blaring, and only half the guests show up, remember to enjoy yourself. Parties are supposed to be fun, regardless of the levels of stickiness they involve.

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