A Fourth of July party may be a casual affair — no need to serve an extravagant four-course meal or bring out the good china — but that doesn't mean you're limited to burgers, hot dogs, and plastic tablecloths. In fact, an Independence Day party means you can treat your family and friends to an exceptional meal and a fun, festive atmosphere without fussing over elaborate recipes or polishing the silver.
While an outdoor party can be easier to host than a formal dinner, some planning is required. For guidance, we spoke to Karen Bussen, a New York event planner and author of several books on entertaining. Bussen's guide to throwing a stress-free Fourth of July celebration starts with a buffet menu featuring barbecue favorites that can conveniently be prepared in advance — think grilled chicken and ribs, slaw, and fruit salad. Bussen also shares her ideas for setting up the bar and creating a patriotic table, as well as tips for lighting, music, kids' activities, even setting up a special place to watch the fireworks. And, these backyard party ideas are perfect not just for July 4th but every day.
A Fourth of July barbecue is just about as casual as entertaining gets, and your menu should reflect that. Bussen recommends focusing on simple recipes with "good-quality ingredients," which is easy in the summer when so much great produce is available. Add a few homemade touches, such as your own barbecue sauce. She also likes to include several dishes that can be served warm or at room temperature because they can be made ahead, cutting down on last-minute fussing and stress. "The more you can do in advance," Bussen says, "the better, as you'll be able to greet your guests and have fun." With the exception of the guacamole, which should be made just before the guests arrive, everything on Bussen's menu can be prepared the morning of the party or one day before.
For the main course, Grilled Chicken and Ribs, Bussen warns against turning the meat on the grill too soon: "Let it really sear on one side, and the meat will pull away from the grill easily — if you turn it too soon, you'll tear the skin and lose that nice caramelization." It's also important to let the meat rest, covered with foil, for five to ten minutes once it comes off the grill. This allows the juices to return to the center of the meat, making for juicier chicken and ribs. To avoid cross-contamination, do not place cooked meat on the same platter you used to transport the raw meat to the grill — either thoroughly wash the platter with soap and water or use a clean one.
If you prefer not to grill during the party, cook the chicken and ribs about 30 minutes before
guests will arrive, then transfer both to a roasting dish, cover with foil, and place in a warm oven (200 to 225°F) until you're ready to serve. To prevent the meat from drying out, keep chicken and ribs in the oven for no more than an hour. Alternatively, serve the chicken and ribs at room temperature: Grill them earlier in the day then refrigerate, and take out of the fridge 30 minutes before you're ready to serve.
Safe and simple sauce
The beauty of Bussen's Sweet and Tangy Barbecue Sauce is that it can be made a full four days in advance — store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. To avoid cross-contamination, Bussen recommends dividing the sauce in half and placing it in separate containers: One batch is for brushing on the chicken and ribs while they are on the grill, the other is for the table. "The marinade that's touched the raw meat should not be brought to the table." Discard that marinade once you're done basting.
Customize your cornbread
Bussen's Manchego Jalapeño Cornbread is a crowd-pleaser, so be sure to make two batches. The jalapeños aren't overwhelming, but if you're worried about kids or even adults not liking the heat, omit the peppers from one batch. The cornbread can be served warm or at room temperature and can be made the morning of the party if you keep it well covered (with a layer of plastic wrap followed by aluminum foil).
Berry good dessert
Bussen's recipe for Strawberry Angel Food Trifle calls for frozen strawberries, but at the height of summer, it's better to use fresh, and if possible local, berries — you can even use a combination of strawberries and blueberries to give the dessert a more patriotic look. Using fresh berries doesn't change the recipe, though you will need to cook the fruit a bit longer. For convenience, Bussen recommends assembling the trifle up to one day in advance — cover and keep it in the refrigerator until 30 minutes before serving. Prepping the trifle ahead of time allows the flavors to blend nicely, Bussen adds.
This menu works best served as a buffet. Before the party, set out the serving pieces and utensils you will need for each dish to eliminate any last-minute scrambling. And, have a plan to keep food bug-free: Cake stand covers, decorative napkins, or kitchen towels can all be placed atop food to keep unwelcome critters out. Bussen also recommends setting up your buffet table at a slight distance from the dining table so that those seated nearest the food won't feel cramped if guests crowd around the ribs — setting up a separate drink station can also help cut down on overcrowding.
To make sure everyone gets their sweet fix, Bussen prefers to serve dessert before the fireworks. Otherwise, it can get too late for kids to enjoy all the treats or guests may start leaving. Besides, Bussen insists, "There's nothing like watching colorful rockets explode on a happy, full stomach!"
Fourth of July cookout for 20
Brother David's Grilled Chicken & Ribs double recipe to serve 20
Sweet & Tangy Barbecue Sauce double recipe to serve 20
Radicchio & Carrot Slaw double recipe to serve 20
Layered Salad with Roasted Garlic Dressing double recipe to serve 20
Manchego Jalapeño Cornbread double recipe to serve 20
Strawberry Angel-Food Trifle double recipe to serve 20
Seasonal Fruit Salad with Fresh Mint double recipe to serve 20
For a casual backyard barbecue, Bussen insists "You don't have to offer everything, just a few well-chosen drinks." With this in mind, Bussen makes a large batch of one summer cocktail — Margaritas are perfect — and offers a limited selection of wine and beer, plus nonalcoholic options such as lemonade, iced tea, soda, and water. Be sure to have plenty of water on hand, especially if the party will start in the afternoon, when the hot sun may cause dehydration.
Quality and quantity
Bussen recommends limiting your beer selection to just two great brews—one lighter style and one that's a little fuller in body. If a local beer or microbrew is available, go with that: "Serving interesting beers is one way to make the party a little different from the usual backyard [affair]."
Rosé is right
For wine lovers, Bussen suggests offering something summery and light, yet with enough fruit to stand up to grilled meat. "A crisp, slightly fruity rosé, such as a Rioja rosé from Spain or anything from the South of France," would be ideal, she adds.
When shopping, Bussen says to plan for one alcoholic drink per adult per hour and one to two nonalcoholic drinks per person per hour for kids and non-alcohol-drinking adults. Have plenty of backups because "it's always better to buy a little extra rather than rushing out in the middle of the fun." For ice, two pounds per person is a good rule of thumb during warmer months. For more help figuring out the right amount of drinks or setting up a bar, go to our cocktail party primer.
Setting up the bar
As mentioned, Bussen prefers to set up separate food and drink stations to prevent everyone from huddling around one table. For the bar, she recommends prepping as much as possible in advance of the party. She even mixes the Margaritas — without ice — one day ahead and stores them in the fridge. To make sure she hasn't forgotten anything, Bussen imagines herself serving each drink — it helps remind her of anything she's missing, like salt for the Margaritas, sugar for the iced tea, or bottle openers for the beer. Keep beer and soda cold in ice-filled coolers or buckets next to the bar. And remember a separate bucket with ice for drinks.
Drink service To make it easy for everyone to help themselves, Bussen serves Margaritas, lemonade, and iced tea in attractive beverage dispensers or covered pitchers — Pottery Barn, Sur la Table, and Crate & Barrel offer several terrific options. Another idea is to fill old wine bottles with beverages. Remove the labels and use an erasable marker to mark the bottles so guests know what's what. Cork stoppers can be purchased online or at kitchen supply or wine stores.
When it comes to outdoor parties, casual is the name of the game. There's no need to go overboard with decorations or activities, but Bussen has several easy ideas for setting the scene.
For a Fourth of July gathering, Bussen insists that you don't need to have everything red, white, and blue. Instead, she recommends adding a few touches and focusing on color. Rather than buying stars-and-stripes-themed tablecloths and place mats, choose linens in a solid red or blue or a simple stripe or check. Bussen also likes to add inexpensive chargers because they "bump up the look" of the table and "work well as reinforcements for disposable plates piled high with saucy barbecue food, so they're practical."
For plates and silverware, you have several options. The table shown here features inexpensive items from Ikea and Christmas Tree Shops, but you could use your own everyday plates and silverware, or disposable versions. For disposables, Bussen likes the sophisticated look and eco-friendliness of Verterra's dinnerware, which is made from fallen leaves and water, and is biodegradable and compostable. Alternatively, look for sturdy recycled-paper plates.
Light up the night
When the sun goes down, lighting the party area is essential. If you use candles, be sure they are under glass or windproofed in some way to prevent them from blowing out. Bussen uses a combination of tiki torches and lanterns. (Torches can be purchased from Amazon and Target; Pottery Barn offers several styles of outdoor lanterns.) For the dining table as well as the buffet and drink stations, simple glass lanterns are perfect. To create ground-level lighting, Bussen takes tall glass cylinder vases, fills the bottom with sand, then anchors a pillar candle inside. Frosted glass glows beautifully and adds a nice ambience to the party, but clear glass would work just as well. Be sure to use vases that are tall enough to block the wind.
Make a soundtrackFiguring out how to broadcast music outdoors can be a challenge, so reserve some time to coordinate this, whether it involves using a boom box or setting up speakers in your backyard — just be kind to the neighbors! As to selecting tunes, the simplest solution is to create a playlist on your iPod or MP3 player and make sure it's long enough to outlast the party. For a Fourth of July gathering, Bussen likes a British versus American theme, choosing artists from both sides of the Atlantic — think the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Oasis, and Nirvana. Keep in mind that your party will likely include guests from different generations, so it's smart to play music from appropriate eras. For instance, if you're a country fan, include classics like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline, but mix in some new voices too, such as Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban.
The kids' table
If your party includes a large group of children, they will likely keep themselves occupied — but just in case, it's smart to have some activities available. Cover the kids' table with white craft paper and provide red and blue markers and stickers so they can decorate their table for the holiday. Horseshoes, hula hoops, even an Independence Day-themed scavenger hunt can be fun for kids and adults. If your party is likely to go late, set up a cozy place inside so little ones can nap or watch DVDs.
Plan for fireworks
If you're lucky enough to be able to watch the fireworks from your own yard, follow Bussen's advice and set up a special "viewing area" with blankets spread out on the ground. Lay a plastic drop cloth down first to protect guests from bugs and moisture, and for extra comfort, add some big pillows. For anyone who doesn't want to lie on the ground, set up folding chairs.
The great outdoors
Your guests will love spending the day outdoors but they won't enjoy bug bites or sunburn. Stock up on sunscreen, nontoxic bug repellent, and citronella candles to keep everyone comfortable. And, always have a rain game plan. If you have a large covered outdoor area you're all set, but if not, Bussen suggests turning your party into an indoor picnic. Set up a buffet in the kitchen or dining room. Clear some space in your living room, then throw down a couple of blankets and let folks dine gathered round your coffee table.
Easy, breezy clean-up
Bussen's favorite entertaining cleanup trick is to line several garbage cans with three or more trash bags: "As you fill one up during the party, you can just remove it, and presto—there's another liner already in place." Be sure to designate different garbage cans for trash and recycling so your guests can do their own sorting. And, if you're not using disposable tableware, Bussen recommends labeling several storage bins for plates, glasses, and silverware so guests can separate them for you rather than just piling everything in the sink.
New York–based floral and event designer Karen Bussen is author of and . To learn more about Bussen, go to .