cookout summer 2021

The Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Summer Cookout (2021)

Last Updated on September 8, 2021

Seeing more familiar faces around the table is definitely something worth celebrating this year. Whether you’re planning a get-together for friends or a special family event, having a guide can help you spend less time stressing out over the details and more time catching up in person. Ours is filled with tips and sample menus to help you take some of the guesswork out of planning and hosting a summer cookout.

What Is the Best Food for a Cookout?

Before we get into what you’ll be serving, think about who you’ll be inviting. The size of your crew will change how much food you need and how you serve it. You’ll also want to figure out if people are planning on bringing a dish with them, or if there are any dietary restrictions, so you can plan accordingly.

Keep it simple with burgers and dogs.


burgers and dogs on grill


Chances are, your guests will be satisfied if you dish up the classic burger and hot dogs. After all, this event is more about getting together than anything else. If you have a smaller group coming to your cookout, you likely won’t need much more than a pound or two of ground beef. The average burger is four to six ounces, which also happens to be the ideal portion for most people.

While you could serve your burgers with cheese, lettuce, onion, and tomato, it doesn’t hurt to get a little fancy with this standard cookout fare. Try a Bacon Burger with Chipotle-Lime Mayo to wow your guests with smoky, zesty heat they weren’t expecting. And if you’re looking to go all out, especially if it’s your first cookout in a long while, get wild with your toppings.

Don’t forget to create the same experience for your vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian friends! Substitute your beef patties with a veggie burger and layer on those same amazing toppings and condiments. We recommend this recipe from Cookie & Kate—it’s packed with real ingredients and absolutely flavorful, with a touch of heat from the spices and a slight sweetness from the sweet potato. Unlike a lot of veggie burgers, this patty also keeps its shape while grilling, so you don’t have to worry about bits falling through your grate.

Sample Menu: All-American Plate

Take a stab at new flavors.

Looking for a meal that allows you to experiment with new flavors on the grill? Then, skewers are the way to go. Each individual stick gives you the ability to play with marinades and spices whether you’re trying a popular spice blend from another country or offering guests a variety of flavorful options.

Don’t be afraid to reimagine a familiar flavor with these Grilled Sirloin Tips with Coffee-Bourbon BBQ Sauce. The nuttiness of the roasted coffee paired with the smokiness of the grill and sweetness of the brown sugar will excite your tastebuds as you dig into each bite. Or introduce guests to something new like Nigerian Chicken Suya Skewers—a Nigerian staple made with a rich and savory spice blend that will leave them coming back for more.

Because they’re already portioned out, skewers are perfect for meeting guests’ dietary needs. You easily can sub out meat for fish, tofu, extra veggies, or whatever else they might like. The marinades and spice blends are what carry these dishes, so they’ll pack a punch no matter what you put them on.

Sample Menu: International Flavors

Feed a crowd with big roasts.

grilled flank steak

Grilling large cuts is the way to go if you’re feeding a crowd. Not only does it make your cookout more special, but it’ll save you money and headaches since you can serve everyone the same main course and don’t have to keep your eye on the grill as attentively. It’s even better if you have holiday cuts chilling in your freezer, just waiting for you to use them up.

Each guest will likely eat between four to six ounces, so you may want to consider going with a slicing steak like a flank or skirt steak, or a vegetarian option that can be sliced into larger portions like firm tofu. These cuts can easily be split between three to four guests, so depending on your group size, you likely won’t need a freezer full of food to feed everyone.

Sample Menu: BBQ Staples

Get festive with holiday-inspired recipes.

turkey stuffing cranberry sandwich

Whether you’re someone who can’t get enough of the holidays or want to make your first 2021 family gathering extra special, there’s plenty of ways to transform a cookout into a summer-style holiday. If you’re looking for something simple, try a turkey burger with cranberry sauce to tap into Thanksgiving flavors. If you’re looking for something a little more formal-feeling, try grilling a tri-tip, a traditional Christmas roast in California. Use your favorite seasonings and sauces or give it some summer flare with a mango-jalapeno salsa.

Luckily, winter holiday sides and vegetarian main courses tend to work well on the grill, too. Try marinating or seasoning your favorite vegetables just like you normally would and then throw them on the grill. Heartier dishes like Vegan Quinoa-Cranberry Stuffed Acorn Squash can be easily modified by using summer squashes like zucchini and grilling them for 8 to 10 minutes. If you’re sticking with the larger variety of squash, be sure to keep it on a little longer to cook it all the way through.

Sample Menu: Thanksgiving Redo

What to Do Before Your Guests Arrive

So you planned your summer cookout menu and bought all of the ingredients, now what? It depends on what you’re making, but generally, you’ll want to start prepping a few things sometime between a day and a few hours before your cookout.

Brine, marinade, or season your protein.

Before you do anything else, check your recipes to see how long it takes to prep your proteins. Often, meat requires a bit of time—sometimes up to 24 hours—to absorb all the delicious flavors of the brine, marinade, or seasoning. You’ll want to tackle this first since it’ll be the focal point of your menu.

While you’re at it, this is a great time to also whip up any accompanying sauces if you’re going the homemade route. These can also take a bit of time to prepare, so giving yourself a head start will lead to less stress during the day of your gathering.

Prep your veggies.

Slicing, dicing, and cutting up veggies is another item you’ll want to check off your list before your guests arrive. Again, the timing here is completely dependent on what you’ll be using the vegetables for. However, as a general rule of thumb, you should start this prep work closer to the cookout, so that your veggies are still crisp when you’re setting them out for guests or adding them to the grill.

Pro tip: Get friends and family involved, especially if you have early birds who love lending a hand. Prepping veggies tends to be an easy task, and it’ll allow you to work on something else while you catch up in the kitchen.

Don’t forget the snacks and drinks!

Let’s be honest. As the host and grill master of the day, you’re going to spend a bit of time in front of the grill. Whether you’re great at multitasking or not, make sure to set your guests up with snacks and drinks to keep them entertained while you work your magic.

The key to making snacks super low-key is to pick items that hold up well when unrefrigerated like chips and bean dip, a fruit salad, or an easy mezze platter. Otherwise, you’ll need to worry about checking in on them while watching the grill, and no one wants to rush back and forth all afternoon. If you’re looking for something a little special for the occasion, add Sweet and Smoky Mixed Nuts or Candied Cajun Bacon to the spread.

For drinks, keep bottles and cans in a cooler filled with ice. Make it easier for guests to find what they’re looking for by placing alcoholic drinks in a separate cooler from non-alcoholic ones and label them accordingly.

Fire up the Main Course

burgers on grill

While people snack and settle in, it’s time to get grilling! Whether it’s your first time behind the grill or your hundredth, these tips will help you make sure you nail the main course every time.

Start by cooking up your sides.

You might be tempted to save your sides until the end, but it’s not worth letting the star of your table—the protein—go cold. Grill your veggies first and store them in a dish covered with aluminum foil to keep them warm. Then, when your protein is cooked and resting, throw the veggies on the grill again to quickly heat them back up.

If you’re cooking potatoes or another side that takes a bit of time, make sure you tackle these before all else. Potatoes take a while to boil or grill, and pasta salads are best served after they’ve had hours to soak in the flavors of the dressing. Unless your recipe says otherwise, you should start these when you prep your protein.

Create two temperature zones on your grill.

If you’re grilling anything other than a burger, then it’s important to set up two different temperature zones on your grill. (For burgers, you’ll just use an even temperature.) You can do this by either raising and lowering the heat of your gas grill’s burners or moving your charcoal to one side once you’ve fired up the grill.

ButcherBox’s Chef Yankel is a pro at grilling for large groups and recommends putting your meat on the hot zone first, turning the meat for a few minutes on each side, to create a char or sear. Then, you’ll move the meat to the lower temperature zone to finish cooking.

The most important step to grilling your meat is to get the correct level of doneness. Check your meat thermometer against the FDA’s recommendations to make sure you get the perfect internal temperature.

Don’t forget to allow your meat—even the burgers—time to rest for eight to ten minutes before serving as this will allow the natural juices to disperse.

Make New Memories with Friends and Family

Now that you have a better idea of what to serve your guests and how to plan your cookout, it’s time to get to the fun part of making it all happen. Remember, entertaining your friends and family is all about being able to savor the moments you spend with them, so let go of your worries and know that you’ll be throwing the ultimate summer gathering!

Diane Garcia is the Senior Editor at ButcherBox, focusing on developing content for food lovers like her. When she’s not putting pen to paper, she’s teaching barre or yoga, whipping up a recipe, hiking, reading, or learning a new skill.