From the Start (12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.)
First things first: Pour yourself a drink. It’s going to be a hectic (and fun!) couple of hours. First, fill a trough or a giant tub with ice. If you think you bought too much ice, you have just enough. In fact, suggest that guests bring ice. You can never have too much ice. Set out trash cans and heavy-duty trash bags so that everyone knows where garbage is supposed to go (not on the ground). Covering the food and drink tables with trash bags or newspaper is also a great way to future-proof cleanup.
Sink all booze below the ice surface to keep everything cool throughout the day. But an outdoor summer party also wouldn’t be an outdoor summer party without bottles on bottles of rosé, and maybe some vinho verde (if you’re thinking of switching it up a bit). Depending on how many guests will be there, you may want to opt for a keg or mini-keg, too. They’re simple and reduce waste for end-of-party cleanup. Leave a Sharpie out near the plastic cups by the keg so that nobody misplaces their drink. As for punches, keep batches in the fridge and pull out as needed. Few things are more unpleasant than super-diluted punch that’s been sitting out in the sun.
Ideally, no food would sit out in the sun. But we know that’s not going to happen. So, first, let’s just say: no potato salads and no raw bar. Meats and cheeses should be held for later. It’s the hottest point of the day and the sun is shining. So, as guests start to trickle in, put out some chips and dairy-free dips like salsa (no guacamole, no blue cheese or ranch) for people to nosh on when they arrive. Lay a crudite platter out under an umbrella to avoid direct sunlight. For the kids, if there are any, put out a bowl of Cheddar Bunnies and some cut up watermelon or other fruit. These snacks should keep guests occupied while you finish putting everything else together. While you’re prepping for the grilling portion of the day, remember that it’s helpful to over-buy the stuff you can freeze, like meat and good-quality sausage. You should be warier of over-buying more perishable items.
Bring Out the Board (2 p.m.)
Around 2 p.m., after guests have arrived and settled in, bring out the meats and cheese. Rim a baking sheet with ice and set your charcuterie and cheese on it to keep everything cool. Avoid direct sunlight by protecting the spread under an umbrella if possible.
Light the Chimney (2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Time to get grilling. You’ll be at the grill for these two hours, but only these two hours. Throw the vegetarian options on the grill first to avoid any meat-contact problems. Plus, the veggie burgers, flatbreads, toasts, and tofu can sit out longer. Once the vegetarian options are taken care of, get those burgers, wings, and dogs on the grill. Replenish charcoal as needed. And tell guests who are arriving during this time period to bring charcoal or more ice.
Last Call (4:30 p.m.)
Guests who want something grilled should request it now or not at all. It’s lights out for the grill around 4:30 and a good time to check in to make sure everyone’s properly hydrated, especially the guests who arrived around noon. Now, relax a bit—it’s time to enjoy the party before clean-up.
Sugar Rush (5 p.m.)
You can’t go wrong with serving a bar or brownie for dessert. Unlike ice cream and cakes, they won’t get overly melty or alarmingly gooey. Bars and brownies are also easy to bake the night before to save you time, not to mention guests who have to bail early will be so grateful they can take some dessert for the road.
Reaching the Finish Line (8 p.m.)
If the sun is setting or on its way down, it’s time to bust out the all-natural bug spray, light those Citronella candles, and get the fire pit going, if there’s one available. Leave out some Ziploc bags for guests to take home perishables. Chips you can save, meat you can freeze, but the vegetables (especially already-made salads) will perish. Send all that home with guests.
That’s a Wrap
When it’s over, it’s over. No campers. Stragglers should know that lingering around will cost them: They have to help you clean up.