Summer is in full swing, which means it’s high time you host a barbecue before the bells start ringing for back-to-school season.
The only problem? You’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to serve up porterhouse steak and craft beer to everyone. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to throw an epic backyard barbecue without spending a small fortune.
So go clean off your grill, put on your apron, and get ready to host a classic, affordable summer barbecue.
How to Save Money on Your Summer BBQ
You don’t need a huge budget to host a great summer barbecue. All you need is some planning and plenty of time to prep before your guests arrive. Follow these tips to throw a cookout your guests will love without breaking the bank.
1. Calculate How Much Food You Really Need
One of the easiest ways to waste money when you host a barbecue is to buy too much food and drinks. But you don’t want to get into a situation where there’s not enough for everyone. So how do you know how much to buy?
According to Food Network, most adults eat 1 pound of food at a barbecue, while children eat about a ½ pound. And remember, that’s total food consumed, not just meat. If your party goes after nightfall, then your guests will eat and drink a little more. When buying meat, plan on buying 5 to 6 ounces for each guest; if you’re serving meat with a lot of bones, such as ribs, plan on 10 to 12 ounces per guest.
For drinks, Delish estimates that guests typically drink 3 to 4 drinks in 2 to 3 hours.
Pro Shopping Tips: Before you head to the store for food and drinks, download the Ibotta app. Make your shopping list around the different items they’re offering cash back on. This will help you save a nice amount of money on food, drinks (even alcohol), and other supplies.
2. Opt for Less Expensive Cuts of Meat
Sure, many of us would love to serve our family and friends filet mignons. But the price tag that comes with premium cuts of steak or chicken can quickly break your budget. Unless you can score an amazing deal on premium cuts of steak or chicken breasts, opt for less expensive cuts such as flank steak or bone-in chicken thighs — which are more flavourful than breasts, anyway.
Chicken prices vary considerably depending on which cut you choose. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this is how each cut ranks from least to most expensive:
- Leg quarters (the drumstick still attached to the thigh)
- Whole chicken (including the meat, bones, and skin of the entire chicken)
- Bone-in thighs (the upper part of the leg)
- Split breast (including the skin and bones)
- Boneless breast
- Boneless, skinless thighs
Chicken Grilling Tips: The Today show suggests that if you’ll be grilling chicken breasts, you should choose pieces that are between 5 and 8 ounces each; anything larger than that will take a long time to cook. It’s also helpful to pound out the thicker end of breasts to make them more even. Bon Appétit recommends opting for bone-in chicken cuts, which stay juicer than boneless cuts when grilled.
Just like chicken, beef prices run the gamut depending on which cut you choose. According to the USDA, cuts from least to most expensive are:
- Ground chuck
- Ground beef (80% – 89% lean)
- Ground beef (90% lean)
- Flat iron steak
- Skirt steak
- Flank steak
- T-bone steak
- Boneless New York strip steak
- Porterhouse steak
- Boneless ribeye steak
- Filet mignon steak
For more in-depth nutritional information on each of these cuts, check out Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.
Steak Grilling Tips: Food & Wine recommends letting steaks come to room temperature at least an hour before putting them on the grill unless they’re very thin. That’s also the best time to season them with sea salt, which chefs recommend hands down. When in doubt, always use more salt rather than less. And always pat down your steak before grilling to make sure it’s nice and dry; that helps it form a perfect crust while cooking.
3. Get Creative With Grilling
Hot dogs, brats, and hamburgers give you more food per pound than pricier steaks and chicken breasts. However, these options can feel a bit ho-hum, especially if you rely on them during the week for fast summer dinners.
If you want to elevate your barbecuing without breaking the bank, it’s time to get creative.
There are so many delicious and inexpensive ways to dress up the humble hotdog.
One way is to make a hot dog bar. Set up a table and lay out a wide variety of toppings so that guests can create their own gourmet dogs. Options can include:
- Traditional toppings, such as ketchup, yellow mustard, and spicy mustard
- Pickle relish
- Warmed chili
- Shredded cheddar cheese
- Chopped or grilled onions
- Chopped tomatoes
- Sliced jalapeno peppers
- Celery salt
- Nacho cheese
- Diced peaches
- BBQ sauce
- Hot sauce
- Sliced green onions
- Fresh herbs such as mint and cilantro
- Sliced cucumbers and carrots
- Crumbled bacon
- French fries
Have a variety of different types of buns available for guests or toast regular buns on the grill to give them a slight crunch.
Hot Dog Tip: Country Living has a great money-saving tip for serving hot dogs: skip the paper plates and serve them on coffee filters. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, and make it much easier to hold a hot dog.
Shish kabobs are a perfect budget-friendly barbecue option because they allow you to spend less on meat and give your guests plenty of delicious, healthy vegetables at the same time. You can make shish kabobs with beef, chicken, lamb, or even tofu.
But getting meat and veggies to cook at the same rate isn’t always easy. Grilling great kabobs starts with making sure you choose the right cut of meat and then cutting that meat to the right size.
Food & Wine recommends sirloin or sirloin tips for kabobs because they contain enough fat to keep little pieces moist as long as you don’t overcook them. According to the USDA, sirloin is typically on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to per-pound price. And because you’re cutting it into little pieces and mixing them with plenty of vegetables, a few pounds of sirloin can feed a lot of people.
Chicken thighs are another great choice for kabobs. They’re inexpensive and fatty enough to stay moist on the grill.
Whatever meat you choose, cut it into cubes that are 1 to 1.5 inches around. Chicken thighs aren’t easy to cube, so cut these into strips and fold them in half to make a cube the correct size.
Next come the vegetables — and even fruit if you’re feeling adventurous. Purchase these at your local produce stand or farmer’s market to save money. Veggies and fruits that work well on kabobs include:
- Yellow squash
- Bell peppers
- Grape tomatoes
You’ll also need skewers. You can pick up inexpensive bamboo skewers at any grocery store. Just make sure you soak them in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling so they don’t burn on the grill. Before you thread the meat and veggies on, spray the skewers lightly with cooking spray to ensure the food won’t stick to the wood when you slide it off.
Grilling Tip: Always make sure you have an extra propane tank or bag of charcoal on hand, just in case you run out.
4. Go Potluck
These days, most people are happy to bring a dish to share because we’re all busy and no one expects the host to cook everything.
So don’t feel bad about asking guests to bring a dish to share. Potlucks and dinner swaps are the new normal, and no one will bat an eye when you bring it up. Not only will it save you a ton of time and money, but it also gives your guests a chance to share a dish they love and garner bragging rights for it.
To ensure everyone brings their best recipe to your party, tell them beforehand that there will be a contest: everyone votes on the tastiest side dish or dessert, and the winner goes home with a prize — perhaps something homemade, such as your legendary strawberry jam or gourmet spice rub.
To make sure you don’t end up with a dozen desserts and one pasta salad, keep a running list of what everyone is bringing. If notice there are more sides than desserts, or five people offering to bring potato salad, send an email asking people to switch things up.
It’s also standard to ask guests to bring their own alcoholic drinks if they’ll be imbibing. As the host, you should supply some non-alcoholic drinks such as lemonade, iced tea, soda, and water. It’s easy and inexpensive to make fruit- or herb-infused if you want something a little fancier; Cooking Light has some good recipes to try.
Potluck Tip: Your fridge will quickly run out of room if you have to store drinks and side dishes along with meat before and after the meal. To avoid this headache, head to the dollar store or Walmart and pick up one or two plastic kiddie pools or borrow some if a friend or neighbor has one already. Fill them with ice and store side dishes and drinks here instead of your refrigerator.
5. Save on Supplies & Decorations
The dollar store is a budget lifesaver for parties. Stock up on $1 packages of paper plates, trash bags, extra trash bins, paper towels, napkins, and plastic silverware here.
It’s also a great place to get decorations for your party; you can find summer-themed table cloths and banners for a song. If your barbecue is at the end of the summer season, you might also be able to score themed decorations for cheap at bigger retailers who are marking down these items to make room for fall inventory.
Also, make sure you have plenty of chairs for everyone. If you’re running short, ask friends to bring a camp chair or two, or see if your neighbors have some you can borrow for the afternoon.
Setup Tip: Consider setting out several bottles of sunscreen and bug spray — also classic dollar store finds — because guests often forget to bring their own. As sunset gets closer, set out citronella candles to keep the worst of the mosquitos at bay. If the weather is particularly hot, put out a few spray bottles of water so guests can give themselves a cooling spritz now and then.
6. Keep Kids Entertained on the Cheap
The chances are high that there will be kids at your barbecue, which means you should put some time and effort into entertaining them as well. If you already have kids of your own, your work is halfway done because they’ve got toys and games enough to share with the others. However, there are a few other kid-friendly summer activities you can organize for the little ones at your party.
First, consider letting them run a lemonade stand in the backyard. Guests can “buy” lemonade for a quarter, and the kids can donate the proceeds to the local animal shelter or another charity of their choice.
You can also hit up the dollar store for sidewalk chalk, water balloons, bubbles, craft items, and frisbees. Throw everything into a box or bucket and let the kids go to town. Other kid- and crowd-friendly lawn games include cornhole, Twister, croquet, bocce, and badminton.
Another idea is to make ice eggs, which are frozen “eggs” of ice with a toy trapped in the middle. Kids love chipping away at the ice to get their prize, and this activity can keep them entertained for quite a while. Purchase water balloons and small toys at the dollar store and make the eggs the night before. You can find instructions on how to do this at A Little Learning for Two.
Last, skip investing in lots of desserts and let kids make their own s’mores. Chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows are frequently on sale during the summer for this very reason. No fire pit? No problem! Follow these instructions for cute and affordable DIY S’Mores Pots from Elisabeth McKnight.
Everyone loves to get together for a summer barbecue, but the keys to keeping it affordable and fun are planning and prep. One of the best resources you can use is the dollar store because you can get almost all of your non-food items here for next to nothing.
If you have a little money left over in your budget, consider investing in outdoor lighting that will help create a cozy and fun atmosphere after dark. String plug-in white twinkle lights in backyard trees, set candles out on the tables, or stick solar lights in the ground around the yard to create ambiance and intimacy.
What are some of your tips for hosting a budget-friendly summer barbecue?