10 steps to one spectacular backyard party
A pair of party planning pros show serial hosts and newbie entertainers how to keep the focus on fun
The little white square marked “party” swims before you on the calendar. Whether in June, July, or August, it’s the date on which you’ve committed to throwing a backyard party. Now, after sitting on your hands since you first sent out the evites, it’s time to get cracking. These 10 steps should help you achieve backyard barbecue bliss.
Create an experience
For Kasey Stanislaw of Park City’s Harvest Moon Events, the secret sauce to a great party is creating an experience for your guests. “Think of one ‘wow’ factor to incorporate, something guests can take away from the party. Maybe it’s hiring a reptile handler for the kids, or getting a couple of hired guns who can teach lasso tricks to the adults.”
It doesn’t have to be a huge budget item. Stanislaw suggests putting together a crafting area for the kids, with butcher paper on a table, crayons, stickers, and glitter pens. For the adults, a musician — a lone guitarist will do — and a specialty cocktail make a memorable impression.
Don’t go it alone
Author, event planner, and stylist Maria McBride, based in Long Island, New York, can’t make the point strongly enough. “Want to have the most fun at your own party? Get help. Hire two local teens to help serve or direct car parking. If you’re expecting a big crowd, you’ll want one person to help with every 10 – 15 guests.”
Stanislaw agrees. “Even on a small budget, hiring a caterer or a bartender takes the party to the next level. It allows you to be present with your guests instead of stuck in your kitchen.”
Strategize the menu
If you are preparing the meal yourself, put together a menu that lets you do the bulk of the work in advance. Even burgers and brats become special-occasion fare when paired with a buffet of toppings such as kimchi slaw, pomegranate guacamole, blackened onions, and roasted pepper mayo, all of which can be made ahead of time.
Speaking of mayo, watch the clock. If food’s been sitting out for longer than two hours — less time in hot weather — you’ll have to toss it, so don’t expect leftovers. And think about foods that do well at room temperature: hearty noodle or grain dishes with vinaigrette dressing, leafy green salads, breads, savory tarts.
“Stick with a theme for an easy way to guide your planning. Food, cocktails, entertainment, décor—it all falls in place. But don’t take things too literally. A western party might include Dutch oven cooking and gingham napkins. It’s a nod to the West, not a re-creation.”
Stock up on seating
It doesn’t have to be fancy, and your chairs don’t need to match. But unless you’re hosting a party that’s strictly finger food, everyone will need a place to sit and a surface for their food.
Folding tables can be a host’s best friend: Oilcloth makes a reusable, no-sew cover and comes in all sorts of pretty designs, from sophisticated toile to traditional red-and-white gingham. McBride advises buying oilcloth by the roll from fabric suppliers or collecting vintage kitchen tablecloths from tag sales. “If there’s a breeze in the air, prepare to weigh down the fabric with clips or clean garden rocks.”
Stick with a theme
It’s an easy way to guide your planning. “Food, cocktails, entertainment, décor — it all falls in place,” says Stanislaw. She advises not taking things too literally. “A western party might include Dutch oven cooking, burlap cloths, gingham napkins, and Mason jars. It’s a nod to the West, not an actual re-creation.”
Similarly, if you’ve got a beautifully landscaped backyard, think about a Secret Garden party. “Bring in extra planters and flower boxes, light the trees, and do a garden-inspired floral cocktail.”
A theme can extend to music as well. Unless you invest in a full outdoor sound system, you won’t be able to flood a large open space with music. But you can turn a porch or patio into a party space using portable speakers, Siri, or Alexa. Experts say you should plan on three hours of music; services like Songza or Spotify make it a breeze. Just count on turning down music after dark to keep neighbors happy.
Prep drinks in batches
If you’re serving a special beverage — blood orange margaritas, anyone? — mix up a batch in a couple of pitchers and refrigerate. Even with a hired bartender you’re way ahead of the game.
McBride admits to being a wine snob in the past, but says there are excellent boxed wines available, and suggests buying
“a mix of easy summer whites and rosés. Look for craft beers and vintage sodas. Don’t forget to include family-friendly iced tea, lemonade, and water infused with sliced citrus and mint.”
And don’t run out of ice. For a two-hour party you’ll want 1.5 lbs. per person, for drinks and for chilling all beverages.
Upgrade your plates
The saddest barbecue sight of all is a paper plate sinking under the weight of a loaded burger. Melamine dinnerware is durable, lightweight, and comes in hundreds of patterns, French country to space age hipster. While you’re at it, replace disposable plastic cups with acrylic glassware worthy of the wine you’ll be serving. It’s eco-friendly and your guests will notice.
McBride says that if you must use disposable dishes, buy sturdy white Chinet — available in bulk online. Finally, her personal pet peeve is plastic or bamboo utensils. “Stock up on basic metal cutlery from Home Goods or tag sales; it’s easy to clean and reuse.”
Basic outdoor lights are a given, both for the sake of what you’re grilling and your guests’ safety. For a brilliant impression, invest in festive lighting, be it strings of market bulbs swagged across the patio, Japanese-style paper lanterns hung from a tree (pair them with solar lanterns), walkways lined with hurricane lamps, even an outdoor chandelier over the dining table. Just check your power source beforehand.
McBride says that frequent party hosts might consider keeping string lights in place all season. “You’re ready for a party with a flick of a switch. I added a dimmer to the string lights on my deck a few years ago, my best party-ready strategy.”
Have a Plan B
Stanislaw says the smartest hosts always have a weather backup. “Especially in Park City, where weather can change in an instant, you need a Plan B. Being flexible is essential. Looking at the radar three days before, you might see rain forecast and panic, but it can change overnight.
“If the budget allows, rent a canopy—you don’t need a full tent with walls and flooring. Usually downpours will pass quickly. Until then, have cocktails indoors. And have plenty of towels on hand to dry chairs.”
Yes, there will be trash. McBride takes a low-tech approach, relying on galvanized trash cans. “They’re easy to clean, last forever, and have a retro-industrial appeal.” She says you’ll need 2 – 3 cans (don’t forget one for the bar), and plenty of sturdy 30-gallon trash bags. And do hire a couple of helping hands (or pay the kids) to keep things tidy. You’ll spend your time having fun, not hauling garbage.