How to Throw a Last-Minute BBQ Bash

people having fun at a backyard BBQ party
  • 2-20 hours
  • Beginner
  • 50-200

Sometimes last minute plans work better than scheduled events. When you find space on your calendar and agreeable weather, don’t worry that you didn’t plan very far ahead. There’s still time to throw that BBQ bash.

Entertaining doesn’t have to be complicated. After all, you’re probably planning to cook for your own family anyway, so upscaling the occasion to include friends is a natural progression. Throw together your guest list, prep the food, clean the grill, and if you have time, make a few special preparations.

Step 1 - Send Out the Invitations

Even if it was still en vogue, you probably don’t have time to get paper invites in the mail. Besides, who has stamps around anymore?

Instead, hit up Evite for a quick and free way to get the message out. The program provides templates for all the common themes, whether you’re celebrating a birthday, Independence Day, or a ‘just because’.

You can use emails or phone numbers to contact your guests. They can easily RSVP and join in the conversation through comments. Evite makes it easy to coordinate times, food, activities, and important information.

Be articulate in your invitation. If you’re planning an adult-only event, make that clear. On the other hand, if the entire family is welcome, lay out that information as well.

Give your guests an idea of what to expect. Is it a potluck? A surprise menu (maybe because you haven’t decided yet)? Or a burgers and hot dogs affair?

Outline timelines for arrival and when the food will be served so guests can plan accordingly.

vegetables on a grill skewer

Step 2 - Make a Meal Plan

The food takes center stage at any BBQ bash and yours will be no exception. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be stressful. Your guests will have a good time whether the food is minimal or extravagant.

Plan out a menu that works for you. If you love to cook and have the time, you can pull together a variety of side dishes in conjunction with whatever you have on the grill.

On the other hand, you can call on guests to contribute if you’re short on time, money, or interest in spending hours in the kitchen.

When it comes to food, variety is the key to serving a spectrum of preferences and diets. Start with meat. Hamburgers, hot dogs, brats, steaks, chicken, and ribs are popular choices. If you have a smoker, try your hand at slow-cooked brisket, tenderloin, pork butt, or even a whole turkey. Fish filets or steaks are another option.

Although most people think of beef, pork, or chicken when they envision a backyard cookout, there’s no reason it has to be on the menu. Many foods can be cooked on a grill in a similar manner to the stove and oven indoors.

Experiment with a DIY grilled pizza station where guests can top premade crust with their favorite additions and toss it on the grill to cook. Vegetarians and vegans will appreciate some alternatives to meat as well.

Try out portobello mushrooms, skewers of vegetables, potato rounds, grilled corn on the cob, cabbage planks, or stuffed potato skins.

On hot summer days, cold foods are refreshing and welcome so look beyond the grill too. Most side dishes can be prepared the day before, freeing up time as the event approaches.

Put together a green salad, pasta salad, or fruit salad. There are endless options for ingredients so work with what you have or try new recipes. You can make your own dressings and sauces or rely on your favorite store-bought brand. For green salads, wait to dress it until your guests arrive or keep the dressings on the side.

Other sides could, and should, include fresh fruit. Pineapple, watermelon, grapes, berries, kiwi, mango, and other fruits can be displayed on a platter, kept separate in bowls, or used to fill a carved out watermelon shell for visual appeal and use as a centerpiece.

Some other quick fillers are chips of various kinds, salsa and dips, baked beans, and potato salad.

Remember the condiments, including ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles or relish, bbq sauce, etc.

Step 3 - Consider a Theme

If you want to go with a theme you can make the party festive while calling on your friends to join in on the creativity. Host a Hawaiian or Polynesian theme with a tiki bar and pulled pork sandwiches and grilled pineapple.

Give it an Asian flair with teriyaki chicken and spicy green beans, or go American with beer and brats. Celebrate Mardi Gras or St. Patrick’s Day out of season or host a coastal theme rich in seafood dishes.

Your decorations can match the theme with streamers, table coverings, balloons, and games to match. As a last-minute event though, work with what you have rather than investing time and expense in decorations.

fruit infusion water drinks in glass jars

Step 4 - Plan Drinks

Next to food, drinks are perhaps the most important part of the party. As a host, you can provide a few basics and allow your guests to BYOB (bring your own beverage) from there.

Beer and wine are popular options for warm outdoor gatherings. You can also produce a signature cocktail that’s as basic or complex as you’re willing to make.

Mojitos, margaritas, and Moscow mules are fan favorites, but you can create simple two-ingredient cocktails with gin or vodka and sparkling water, cranberry juice, or lemonade.

Remember the non-alcoholic options too. Provide cold water that’s easily accessible alongside some soda and juice or sparkling water flavors.

Remember the ice. It’s one thing that’s often overlooked in the planning process. Make that last minute run to the convenience store and fill the cooler before the guests arrive (or ask someone to pick it up en route). You’ll need ice for mixed drinks as well as for keeping canned and bottled beverages cold.

You might also want to check your specialty ice trays if you have them. Ice cube balls, squares, pineapples, or Spongebob Squarepants add a bit of flair to the event.

Step 5 - Gather Supplies

With the food and drinks planned out, at least in a general sense, make sure you have a convenient way to serve them up. If you want to avoid washing dishes, grab some paper plates, disposable cups and silverware, and napkins.

While it’s a bit more effort, offering reusable dishes and drinkware is a more environmentally-friendly option. Plus it will save you money and reduce waste.

Speaking of waste, have a plan for managing it. Put out containers, trash cans, totes, or bins and clearly label them for garbage, recycling, and bottle returns. You can have an additional one for reusable dishes that need to be washed.

In the kitchen, dig out platters and bowls, serving spoons, pitchers, and cutting boards. It might be the perfect opportunity to use that drink dispenser, punch bowl, or coffee urn.

table in outdoor dining area

Step 6 - Set up Tables

Offering a place to sit while eating is a nice convenience for your guests. Start with what you have. Wipe down the patio dining set or use a tablecloth to dress it up while covering imperfections.

Reposition the picnic table and place the kids’ picnic table nearby.

If you don’t already have appropriate tables, bring out the card tables or improvise with a DIY table made from sawhorses and a thick board such as plywood.

Step 7 - Supply Seating

Take a headcount and provide as many chairs as you can. While some guests might not mind dining picnic-style on a blanket or perched on a stump, it’s more comfortable to have proper chairs.

Use the chairs with your dining set. Then supplement with folding chairs, camp chairs, and even seats from inside the house. Benches and patio furniture can work too. If you still come up short, feel free to ask guests to BYOC.

Step 8 - Prep the Cook Station

With the sides prepped, the meat defrosted and in a marinade, and the guest list coming together, it’s time to prep the cooking station for your last-minute BBQ bash.

Take the cover off and give the grill a good cleaning. Empty or replace the drip pan as needed. Make sure you have enough propane, charcoal, or pellets to fuel your grill. Also clean up your grilling utensils and find the meat probe so you can monitor the slow-cooking meat while you’re busy doing other things.

Create a plan for how you will cook the foods on your menu. Make use of the entire grill and outdoor burners. Set up an additional cookstove if needed. Fall back on the stove, microwave, oven, slow cooker, griddle, Instapot, or other indoor appliances as needed.

outdoor string lights

Step 9 - Lighting

Next, we move onto ambiance. If you don’t have time, this step is easily skipped, but if you already have some lighting options you might as well put them to use.

Hook up the LED string lights on the umbrella above the dining table, along the eaves of the house, in the trees, or around the gazebo roofline.

Also charge up the path lights you tucked away in the garage last season and illuminate the grilling space with magnetic lights, a grill light, or an effective porch light, if needed.

Around dining areas, place candles or battery-operated LED lights into canning jars. Hang them or place them on the table.

Step 10 - Music

Set the mood with the right type of music for your guests to enjoy. Choose your favorite blend of classic rock, alternative, pop, or Caribbean vibes and pair it with a portable speaker or stereo system. For a low-key affair, such as an atmosphere of wine tasting and conversation, match the setting with jazz or soft rock instead.

Step 11 - Let the games begin!

The entire purpose of a BBQ is to bring friends and family together for a frolicking good time. Depending on the weather and the crowd, there are any number of games and activities you can quickly set up to enjoy.

If you have lawn games such as bocce ball, croquet, horseshoes, or cornhole, dig them out and get them prepped for play.

Set up the net for some team games of volleyball or badminton, or prep a larger yard for an informal game of baseball.

The kids will likely entertain themselves with a play structure or swing set combined with creating a purple puddle of popsicle drips and dragging random toys from the indoors to---everywhere.

However, if you have a few minutes, you can ensure they’ll be well entertained with a scavenger hunt. Simply make a list of locateable items in and around your home. Make it age appropriate such as “something red” for small children or “a rock larger than three inches” for older kids.

Allow them to check in with an adult or older sibling to check off items as they are found and provide a small prize to the winners (and losers). Bring out the ice cream and let them fill their own cones or dress up a bowl of goodness with their favorite toppings.

Bubbles are another source of endless entertainment. Make your own bubble solution or pick up a container while you’re at the store for supplies. Find different containers around the house to hold the solution.

Then provide a container of bubble wands or set up a craft station where kids can make their own out of water bottles, plastic cups, formed pipe cleaners, and other inventive supply options.

Step 12 - Heaters or Fire

As the sun goes down, keep the party going with a fire or heated space. Depending on how last minute of a BBQ bash you’ve slotted, you might have time to create your own fire pit for the event.

A campfire is an assured way to keep your guests feeling welcome after the daytime activities wane. Stock up on fire-making supplies including a lighter, paper, kindling, and firewood. Plus, provide marshmallows for roasting.

If a real fire isn’t allowed or available, start up the propane fire table instead. In lieu of a flame, provide heat with space heaters. Ask friends to bring along a portable buddy (propane heater) if they have one.


Many of these tasks are optional when it comes to throwing together a last-minute BBQ bash, but each additional effort helps create a memorable event. Have fun and don’t stress about making it perfect. Just be present and enjoy it instead. Cheers!

Learn more about how to Prep Your Grill for the Grilling Season and for fun consider How To Build A Bar.