Everyone loves a cookout, but not everybody loves to throw one. To maximize your BBQ invites this summer, make sure you’re taking care of your hosts better than they’re taking care of you. Not only will this encourage them to throw more parties, you’ll also probably get the first burger off the grill every time. Here are the most thoughtful things you can do to help your hosts that won’t take much effort on your part.
This Cheesesteak Is Made With General Tso's Chicken
Bring a dish
The most obvious is still the best thing you can do. Your hosts have a fridge full of steaks and burgers and soy pups for the vegans. You think they have space in there for a bowl of potato salad? They do not. Let them know you’ll be bringing tater salad and they’ll breathe easier. (Bonus tip: Make potato salad a day or two in advance so the flavors really mingle. Casseroles love a little meditation time.)
The real courtesy is in checking what they need you to bring, so you’re not the feckless villain who overloaded the table with something they already had. Nothing ruins a cookout faster than Aunt Minnie thinking you’re trying to upstage her blue-ribbon signature dish.
Bring bug spray to apply (and share) judiciously
Smoke might keep skeeters away from the chef, but everyone else is going to cluster around citronella candles and pray for a fast death until you put your repellent to good use. Spray downwind of the grill and table, since nobody likes diethyltoluamide in their food. (Not even mosquitoes, and those guys will eat anything.)
Kiss the cook
Don't forget to bring the chef a drink and all the non-grilled foods beyond their reach! Helming the grill is a sacred duty, and they won’t abandon their post. You should ensure they’re never without a drink (it’s hot work!) and find out what their favorite snacks are, then put the choicest picks on a plate; they’ve earned it by captaining this ship. Read their mood carefully, and don’t hover; the grill can be a lonely station, but sometimes its guardian needs the solitude to concentrate.
Wait on the old folks
While you’re tending to the needs of the immobile chef, turn your gaze to the senior citizens in attendance. The olds are good at telling stories from the depths of family lore, but they’re not so good at bending their knees these days. Since they’re unlikely to get out of their chairs, make sure they're hydrated and well-fed. Bring them food and drink orders, and see if there’s anything else they could use. Corral some of those kids and take their pictures with grandpa for a happy memory. Everybody’s going to know you’re the exemplar who respects the elders and they’ll follow suit.
Be the sous chef’s invisible helper
The kitchen can be a lonely place for whoever’s staging and exporting all the food stuffs while the sounds of laughter and tinkling glassware drift in from the yard. Keep your host company by being useful: fetch utensils for the chef, mop counters, wash pots, load the dishwasher, sort and empty garbage, and most importantly: stay out of their way while they’re making the ding-dang food, y’all. Your job is to make life easier, not harder. Be aware of where they’re going and what they need to do. The less they notice you’re there except as a pleasant voice and a suddenly manifested serving spoon, the better.
Be the busboy
If it’s a small kitchen and/or a lot of food needs to make its way out there, stay by the door and offer to ferry food out to the hungry horde or its destination on the grill. By serving as the link between the patio and its stockade, you liberate the hosts to tend to their respective stations.
Be the valet
You don’t need a burgundy vest, but you’ll get a laugh if you have one, as you stage cars compactly and out of the way. Offer to park everyone’s ride or direct them into tight spaces, then help carry their contributions (food and beverages) to the table.
Arrange the lot in order of who’s leaving early (old people, anyone with kids) and who’s staying late or overnight (out-of-towners and single people, mostly). Everyone will thank you when they don’t have to play parking lot Jenga getting out.
Be the designated driver
Want to step up that vehicular virtue you just displayed? Get everybody home safe. You’re not only a civic hero, you’re the party patron. This is a great way to get friendly if you don’t know too many people at the party. By the time you get them home, you just might have a new bowling buddy (do people still bowl? No? Okay, video game wingman, then).
This isn’t all about alcohol, either; guests in/from the city may need to get picked up at the train station or appreciate your getting them home hours earlier than waiting for the subway at 2am.
Take count of the dietary considerations
Everyone has their own meal plan: gluten-free, paleo, keto, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, omnivorous, and that one flakey friend who mistakes lemon juice and hot pepper for a “cleanse.” Some want to attend but don’t like to be demanding guests, so quietly poll everyone and find out if their dietary needs are being met. Now is the time to run out to the supermarket for some tofu tots, not five minutes before dinner is served. You’ll be a hero to both sides of the picnic table.
Play trash collector
Sanitation agent. Waste disposal expert. Garbage collector. These heroes go by many names, but they have one job. Get the junk where it’s going. In addition to emptying the garbage and swapping out new bags, keep recyclable disposal separate from trash obviously, for easier collection and some sweet pocket change. Better put a bottle bin right by the cooler for easy disposal.
But what if you pushed it further and reduced waste? If you get the household garbage down to a single, non-stinky bag, it’s going to make the garage more pleasant until collection day. Food without animal products? That can be composted into the rich soil that shall birth next year’s fried green tomatoes. You can even bring compostable paper plates and cups for zero waste.
Leftover meat scraps, fat, bones? Freeze 'em. Look, we’re not saying you have to save them and make stock, only that yuppies are paying crazy prices for bone broth these days and you’re a pot of water away from getting it for free.
Manage children and other animals
Be the human fence between wee ones and the grill area. Your chef doesn’t need the distraction and children enjoy not getting yelled at. Subtly guide their games away from the direction of the grill (Tip: hide-and-seek is a great game if you take your time when you’re “it.”) and keep a watchful eye on ball and frisbee traffic.
This goes for pets as well. As with the kids, your job is to A) keep them away from the danger zone, B) burn out all their energy. But here’s a pet-exclusive bonus: C) stick your face in that fuzzy belly! WHO’S A GOOD BOY? Who? WHO? It’s Baxter! Yes it is!
Manage the adults, too
Work up everyone’s appetite and keep guests out of the hosts’ hair; get a game of volleyball, soccer, or frisbee going while everyone’s bellies are empty and they can still leap in the air. Everyone will be happy, refreshed, and relaxed just in time for the hors d’oeuvres instead of poking around the kitchen or making lame small talk.
Once it’s beer o’clock, stroll up to people you don’t know and find out about them. Most folks are happy to talk about themselves. If you already know the guests in attendance, introduce them to each other. The power of human nature should take care of the rest. Who knows? You might just introduce someone to their future spouse.
Bring (and set up) a lawn game
A perfect lawn game is physically challenging but not physically demanding. While cornhole is the least action for the most satisfaction, croquet, lawn darts, bocce, and horseshoes are all excellent choices that won’t spill your summer cocktail. Solicit your host's approval before bringing a game to the party; not everybody wants you poking holes in their yard or chucking objects around their prize orchids.
Kill them all
You already offered to do some dishes in the kitchen so the sink doesn’t get full, but this is a special consideration: germicide. There are going to be some plates and utensils that touch raw meat, and you don’t want to put the cooked goods in contact with them. If you think anything needs to be used again, don’t wait to be asked: go full germinator on those buggies. Clean any counters they may have touched -- yes, even outdoors if you think there’s a chance someone could get raw meat juice on their hands or in their mouth -- with something powerful enough to lay waste to the pathogens.
Play that song, Mr. DJ
Implement a party game that will get everyone involved in the soundtrack to your party while making the increasingly intelligent algorithms from Spotify or Pandora do all the work. Ask everyone for one song they’d love to hear, then set up your music service of choice to curate 10-20 minutes of related tunes. If you poll the party so that everybody gets to hear some songs they like as well as a handful of deeper cut, related b-sides, you’ve stumbled upon the cookout motto: “Something for everyone.”
Never stop refilling the snacks
Your host has done half the work by making sure food is placed strategically around the party so nobody has to bail on a fine conversation for more snacks. Now it’s your job to make sure none of those snacks ever run out. The party-throwers will appreciate your quietly replenishing the bowl of tortilla chips, although not as much as the party-goers rapidly emptying them. You’re the anonymous hero that this party needs.
And tend those drinks
First offer to bring a spare cooler for soft drinks only. That way kids and teetotalers can find what they're looking for easily. Nothing dampers a fun vibe faster than getting frostbite while trying to find the fabled dragonfruit soda.
Ice down the cooler early so its insulated temperature drops before drinks land in it. Then keep it stocked and sorted: bury new arrivals at the bottom till they’re cold, but keep the top varied and dynamic; make sure an assortment of drinks juts out at the top for easy pickin'.
Is there a punch bowl? Be sure to refill it and maintain the balance of ingredients that initially went in. Big tip: Once you have some empty bottles, wash them clean, fill them with punch, and store upright in the cooler. As the bowl gets low, pour the chilled bottles back in to keep the reservoir cold. Or just serve somebody a frosty bottle directly.
Tap that keg
Similarly, keg watch is sacred, and remember that a lot of beer -- particularly ales -- is better slightly below room temperature than it is chilled; you’ll taste the flavors a lot more if it’s not cold. So while you are more than welcome to ice that keg, don’t go overboard.
It’s easy to get a cup of foam out of a keg if you don’t know what you’re doing. Play dive bartender, prime the pump, and pour at an angle so none of that precious beer goes to waste. Better still, teach the group how it’s done, and they’ll drink properly for a lifetime.
Give that gratitude some latitude
And finally, express your thanks to the homeowners and grill masters who made this Sunday a fun day. A public toast to their hospitality goes a long way toward uniting the group in well wishes, but don’t overlook the meaning of a thoughtful note a few days later. People throw parties like this because good friends + good food = good times. Letting them know their hard work paid off is all the thanks they want.
Brendan McGinley throws a pretty good barbecue. He wrote a fun book about it but if you have to choose which to bring to the cookout, go with beer.