How to Throw a Low-Key Summer Barbecue

There’s a time and a place for a luxe outdoor barbecue with mixologist-worthy punch, super-slow-cooked smoked meats, and a “casual” game of kickball or flag football. But after a bleak winter, rainy spring, and mind-boggling tax season, all we want right now is something simple and satisfying—think hot dogs with a squiggle of mustard, ice-cold lemonade, and frisbees whooshing in the air. These are the pillars of a classic summer barbecue for a reason—not only do they always delight, but they also don’t require much of hosts or guests.

So simple is best: That’s our motto this summer. Here’s how to bring that laid-back ethos to all your outdoor hangs, in five easy steps.

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  1. Don’t overthink the menu. Let’s be real: You can throw almost anything on the grill, and it will taste good. That’s the beauty of barbecue! So no need to fret about marinating chicken wings or perfecting a spice rub for ribs. Just stick to the classics: hot dogs or sausages and beef patties (topped with your cheese of choice), as well as plant-based versions for any vegetarians or flexitarians. Load up on buns, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and store-bought condiments (or make your own if you’re feeling it), and you’re all set.
  2. Make the most of the gear you already own. There is no English word for that fantastic feeling you get when you’re unpacking the summer stuff you stored away last year, and you find something you didn’t think you had. Dig out whatever you think your guests will enjoy: volleyballs, footballs, frisbees, pétanque…the list goes on.

    If there’s still something you want for the gathering but don’t have, poll the group—it’s likely someone else does and is eager to share. Extra points to the person who brings a cornhole set.

    outdoor aiming target game

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  3. Charge your outdoor speaker and delegate the rest. It takes focus to curate a playlist that suits the good vibes of summer and can go for hours with no repeats. This is a delightful task for music heads, but for the rest of us, not so much. Whether it’s a guest willing to curate a playlist especially for the occasion or a premade option, hand over this vital party responsibility to someone else. Just make sure your speaker is charged ahead of time.
  4. Go big with the drinks. Guests will likely bring seltzers, wine, and/or beer as their contribution to the cookout. It’s easy for them and a welcome addition to the spread you’ve put out, a win-win. You’ll just need a place to keep all those cans and bottles cool. Prepare ahead of time by filling your biggest cooler—or, for kicks, a kiddie pool—with ice.

    Then, instead of making individual cocktails, whip up a big batch or two of a crowd fave ahead of time, like this watermelon sangria or coconut limeade. This way folks can serve themselves instead of waiting for individual servings, and you’re free to mingle.

    time for s'mores

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  5. Outsource the desserts. Save on sparse fridge and brain space by not making sweets yourself. Instead, keep it simple with nostalgic ice pops from the grocery store or a DIY s’mores station.

    Alternatively, you can tap the bakers in your circle. It’s a good excuse for them to turn peak summer produce into pies, bars, ice cream cakes, and more. Either way, after a few hours of grilling, grazing, and soaking up summer, those last bites will taste even sweeter.