June 17, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Backyard barbecue tips

Plan for more food than you need if you can handle repeat leftovers. It's awfully nice not to have to cook again until midweek. (Maureen Tisdale)

We had a dream-come-true barbecue on Saturday, ostensibly to celebrate our son’s 2nd birthday. Really, he’s our excuse for gathering friends for the kind of family-fun loaded event we hoped to pull off when we bought a house with a big fenced-in backyard.

I’d like to take a lot of credit for the party’s success, but with so many friends and in-laws helping out, I can’t say I did more than 10 percent of the work. (Maybe me getting out of the way is the secret to its success???) Anyway, late that night — technically, the next day, 3 a.m. — I woke up to the sound of my probably overstimulated toddler crying. As I rocked him back to sleep, my mind started going to what we needed to remember for next year. (I seem to be in a phase of that with family life; I’m looking forward to seeing whether my road-trip list from the Texas trip works for us when we head to Maine for a July 4 family reunion.)

Naturally, that turned into today’s Let’s Talk Food, and an opportunity to ask you for your tips and tricks for backyard barbecue success.

Some of what I learned from our event:

Make more food than you need if you can handle repeat leftovers. We bought five huge packages of chicken breasts (each breast was cut into thirds, as they were ginormous) and 60 hot dogs for an anticipated 50-60 guests. We had so many leftovers that when I went to make my notes, I started to subtract the leftovers to get a more accurate aim for what to buy next year — then realized, why? We had enough leftovers to get our household full of company fed till midweek, plus plenty of chicken put in baggies in the freezer. It’s awfully nice not to have to cook again until midweek and have ready-made protein (in individual portions, no less) in the freezer too — especially when it’s my husband’s friend Lowell’s hickory-smoked chicken. (Side-tip: Find a way to meet and befriend Lowell. He cooked for our crowd just to show love — he looks at it as a form of ministry. He’s awesome.)

Watch cross-contamination when being mindful of allergies. I bought one packet of kosher hot dogs with no artificial ingredients because our niece Zoe is allergic to food dyes, then I bought some “regular” hot dogs. They all got thrown in together (fortunately after Zoe got one, but this made leftovers off-limits for her); next year, I’d either buy them all kosher (why not? it’s not like kids demand unkosher hot dogs) or be careful to make sure the allergen-free are kept separate.

A tray of roasted veggies from your favorite Middle Eastern restaurant is a great corn-on-the-cob alternative. Knowing a lot of friends who eat like I do (veggie-heavy, flour-and-sugar light), I wanted a salad, raw veggie tray and a delicious cooked veggie option. But the thought of cooking something labor intensive for 50-60 people overwhelmed me, so I called a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant (love every roasted veggie I’ve ever had at Middle Eastern restaurants). When I gave my husband the cost — $44 for one large tray of vegetables — he expressed a little sticker shock. But when I said the magic words — it would take such a burden off me — he was quick to approve. (He’s good people.) I forgot about a vegetarian protein option, so I was glad we had something special for vegetarians — celery sticks get old, you know?

Show someone where refills are and empower them to make ’em happen. I bought three big bags of salad but only put one out to start, wanting to keep refills cool until their time in the sun (well, in the gazebo anyway). Thankfully, a friend let me know when the salad ran out; next year, I plan to tag someone to keep an eye on it and refill when needed. So many people are happy to help, why not let them?

Using two five-gallon coolers with spigots, you can offer multiple drink options. I was wringing my hands a bit on this one, knowing we’d have lots of children and at least two different philosophies about sweeteners for kids — no sugar versus no artificial sweeteners — as well as people who prefer plain old water. Solution: we put a lemonade-tea mix sweetened with sugar in one cooler, ice water in the other and got a variety pack of individual-serving sugar-free Crystal Light packets, some of which had caffeine (the lemonade-tea mix was caffeine-free) for people to add to their ice water if they wished. Next This seemed to whack the moles we wanted to.

If you want to make something, pick something easy with a big ta-da that can be prepped in advance. I made a five-pound batch of the Lemon-Garlic Yukon Gold Potato Smash I wrote about last week (a good easy match with smoked chicken and Middle Eastern veggies) that morning and put it in the slowcooker on warm until it was time to serve. With a little extra olive oil to keep it moist, it held up well for the two hours of the party, even though we unplugged the cooker.

An easy please-a-crowd dessert option:
a half-sheet marble cake surrounded by cupcakes, half of ’em chocolate, half of ’em vanilla. We were delighted to stumble across this option at Sam’s; check with your bakery of choice. And don’t forget you want buttercream, not whipped topping, if it’s going to be out of refrigeration for long.

Designate a cake cutter. Last year, my husband’s cousin Dawn politely took the reins in cutting and distributing cake, explaining she’s seen too many functions where people left before the cake got cut because the hosts were too busy to remember it until too late. With Dawn out of town this year, if my husband’s friend Daryl hadn’t asked for a piece (and offered to cut for everyone), that might have been the case this year. Next year, we’re tagging a cutter in advance.

When it’s over, evaluate to see what works well for your particular crowd. This year, I asked Lowell to keep half the chicken barbecue-sauce free for my fellow sugar-avoiders, but my father-in-law noticed that the sauce one was gone long before the other — and we had lots of leftovers of the sauce-free. Next year I’ll probably veer more toward 2/3 with sauce, 1/3 sauce-free if we’re looking at a similar crowd.

I paid for my obsessive 3 a.m. list-making with some intense exhaustion on Sunday — I skipped lunch with my in-laws and husband to take my son home after church and put us both down for a nap (so much for my dream of making my husband’s favorite chocolate chip cookies for Father’s Day) — but I bet next year I’ll be glad to have the party list.

The truth is, when you have delighted kids running between a bouncy house and the finished-just-in-the-nick-of-time sandbox in a backyard chock-full of friends and sporting some landscaping your in-laws have tirelessly worked on (while you did nothing), you should be happy no matter what.

Still, it’s fun to feel like you got the food right, too.

What are your tips and tricks for backyard barbecues? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re easy to sign up for, and free. Over the next few days, Detroit News Food Editor Maureen Tisdale will respond to comments or questions. You also can follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!