AHH! Summer is here, and the living is easy. (Or so the old, old song goes, so old that I don’t even know the name of it… somebody tell me in the comments section…)
So how do we have a great cookout without barbecuing the budget?
It’s really pretty easy.
Figure out who you are inviting, and who you think will attend. Politely demand (is that an oxymoron? ) that everyone RSVP so you can plan ahead.
Make a list of everything you want to have on hand.
As people call in, say something to the effect of “We are all working together to have a great cookout. Everyone is bringing something.”
Just using this statement will automatically prompt most people to ask “What should I bring?” If they don’t ask, do you really want them at your party?? JUST KIDDING!
Tell them what others are bringing, so there is not much duplication. Give them the list of what is still needed as they RSVP (I went to one cookout last August, where 4 people thought it was a novel idea to bring a huge watermelon. Great idea, but not 4 of them!)
At my last cookout over Labor Day weekend, everyone was instructed to bring their own meat (the hostess was vegetarian, but not fanatical) and something to share on a “share” table. That share table was LOADED with goodies- mostly desserts.
Presented correctly, this is an opportunity for domestic dons and divas to whip up some really great stuff to showcase. (PS. I have also learned to discretely bring a few large ziplock bags with me for leftovers! Usually the person that brings the goodies, does not want to haul them back!)
Decide beforehand what you are going to supply as the host.
I recommend at a minimum, supplying the fire (grill, charcoal, propane, etc.) tables for all of the goodies, paper plates , and plastic cutlery, non-alcoholic beverages and mixers. If there is going to be alcohol served for the adults, it is not unheard of to have it B.Y.O.B.
Speaking of B.Y.O.B, be sure and have enough trash cans available, and one specifically marked for RECYCLABLE cans and bottles. If you have a beer or soda drinking crowd this can be a way to defray some costs by returning all those cans and bottles.
Ice is always in short supply, so in the planning stages, it may be a good idea to start making tons of ice and bagging up as much as you can stockpile. If you have any extra coolers, or can borrow some, fill them with ice.
Whether you are the host or not, here are some more suggestions for what to bring to a holiday cookout.
How about a couple giant jugs of cold drinks for the kids if they are attending (made up beforehand from mixes.) Fizzy soda can get expensive, and all that sugar in the sun is not all that great for you, so I’d go for generic drink mixes. You can get creative by freezing the drinks in festive shapes using jello molds or balloons and serving from a punch bowl for a more festive look. If you really have to have carbonated beverages, go for the store brand.
You can also go “exotic” on the cheap by preparing some special iced teas, maybe an exotic herbal tea, perhaps yerba mate, (I love it cold with lemon and mint with stevia) or what the Amish call “Meadow Tea” (delicious, made simply of hot water poured over mint leaves and steeped. I am sure there are recipes online. By the way, it’s too late for this year, but mint grows like crazy! It is very aggressive, and will take over whatever space is available. Plant some in a large container, you can have a ton of mint almost for free! ) Once you’ve tasted “meadow tea” you’ll be hooked on it as a tasty summer alternative drink.
Whip up a colorful pasta salad – pasta is cheap, and most folks focus on the meats they are going to grill when they think of going to a cookout. You can make it up the day before, and keep it refrigerated until time to eat. It’s not something you want to keep out in the sun. Be sure to add some fresh vegetables from local growers!
Even potato salad or a big pot of beans are a thrifty but always welcome dish at a cookout. (Become known for your homemade baked beans and you are good for a lifetime of cheap contributions to the backyard table!)
Speaking of vegetables, rather than the usual hot dogs, burgers, and chicken tossed on the grill, get creative and try grilling some marinated vegetables. Thick slice some zucchini or summer squash, and marinate it overnight in Italian dressing. Great on the grill. Add some seasoned salt like Mrs. Dash, and it’s a great break from all the heavy meat that most cookouts include. (Talk up the fact that you are trying to eat healthier! )
A cookout with more veggies and less meat is a great example of saving money and getting healthier at the same time. If you really want to surprise people, get a simple recipe for veggie burgers. Many are made of black beans, or rice, and can be delicious. (Just don’t try to fool the meat eaters into thinking they are meat. They don’t taste like meat, but seasoned right they can be delicious.) If you go the veggie burger route, make your own. Store-bought veggie burgers can be more expensive than meat.
Vegetable Kabobs on a stick are another colorful, flavorful and cheaper alternative to meat or steak tips. Just wedge up some tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and zucchini and skewer them and let them soak overnight in some vinaigrette or light Italian dressing. You can wrap them in tinfoil to help preserve some of the juices, and steam /cook them a bit faster, but its not absolutely necessary. You can use any store brand of dressing for the marinade, the flavor will be enhanced by heat.
With a little creativity and spreading the load, Fourth of July cookouts can be festive, fun, and frugal. It’s all about the people after all. In today’s economy no one is expecting the host to foot the entire bill, and serve lobster tails and caviar. At least not in my neighborhood! If that’s what they serve in your neighborhood, can I be your guest?