Think of the backyard party as the dinner party’s easygoing little sibling. Not sure if you’ll have eight people or 18? No problem — just ask folks to bring something extra to throw on the grill. Hate cleaning house just to have people over? Now you don’t have to! Of course, for all its laid-back charm, a backyard barbecue still requires some forethought. Here’s an outdoor party prep countdown that will help you check things off in advance, so you can feel more relaxed on party day.

One Month Before

Check your schedule. It’s easy to let the summer slip by without getting to all the things you wanted to do — so if hosting more backyard gatherings is on your summer list, make plans before the grilling season gets rolling. Look over the next few months on your calendar, decide when you might like to host, and mark it down.

Clean and maintain the grill. Both charcoal and gas grills can use a good deep cleaning at the start of grilling season to keep them in top condition. For gas grill safety, it’s also important to inspect the fuel line for cracks and to make sure burner holes aren’t clogged with grease.

Assess the outdoor furniture. Wish you could seat a few more friends around the fire pit? Craving a more comfy outdoor lounge zone? Items ordered online can take weeks to ship (and local deals can get snapped up fast), so if you’re looking to add to or replace your outdoor furniture, set a budget and start shopping sooner rather than later.

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For a large or formal gathering, invite guests now. If it’s an important occasion — like graduation or a milestone birthday — be sure to give guests a heads-up about a month in advance so that they can mark it on the calendar.

Stock up on backyard party essentials. We reach for the same go-to items at nearly every backyard party, so make things easier on yourself and pull together a party kit in advance. Store these items in the same place so that you know just where to find the cooler and bug repellant wipes on party day.

  • Fuel for grill (propane tank or charcoal)
  • Skewers
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Reusable outdoor dinnerware
  • Lightweight platters for transporting food
  • Cooler or ice bucket
  • Bug repellent towelettes
  • Sunscreen
  • String lights or lanterns
  • Wireless outdoor speakers
  • Umbrellas or shade sails

Three Weeks Before

Decide on the menu and create a shopping list. Whether you’re going for classic burgers and hot dogs or a vegan veggie-centric menu, your head will feel clearer if you get the plan on paper (or on your phone) in advance. List the dishes and sides you plan to cook, and then create a master shopping list — bonus points for dividing the list into sections for perishable and nonperishable items.

Decide on outdoor games and activities. Want to roast marshmallows over your fire pit, rent a bouncy house for the kiddos or play boules on the lawn? Figure out what (if any) activities you’d like to have during your party, and pick up or reserve necessary supplies.

Two Weeks Before

Organize friends’ contributions if it’s a potluck. Collaborate with your guests to make sure each type of dish (main, side, salad, dessert) is represented, and be prepared to offer specific ideas or direction if asked. Folks are more likely to step up to help if you make things as simple and clear as possible.

Shop for nonperishable items and do a little kitchen prep. Pick up wine, beer, condiments and pantry staples, and store them out of the way until party day. If you have any recipes on your party list that can be made ahead and frozen, do it now and you’ll thank yourself later. Even something as quick as making a batch of simple syrup to store in the fridge for homemade lemonade can ease your party prep workload later on.

Week of Party

Get a final head count. Check in with guests who haven’t RSVP’d, and confirm what everyone is bringing if it’s a potluck.

Tidy up the guest bathroom. One great thing about entertaining in the backyard is that you don’t have to stress about getting the indoors looking guest-perfect, with one exception: the bathroom. Carve out time to tidy up the powder room, stock it with extra toilet paper and hand towels, and top off the soap.

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Decide on the music. Pick your playlist or streaming channel to strike the right mood (or opt to go music-free). If you have a new outdoor sound system, be sure to test it out before the party so that you’re clear on how everything works.

Clean out the fridge. You’re going to need more space than you think for all those party dishes and chilling beverages, so make some room before you hit the market.

Shop for perishable ingredients and make a few dishes in advance. Pick up perishable goods, including fresh fruits, veggies, cheeses and meats, up to two days before the party, but wait until the day before (or morning of) to buy fresh seafood. Look over your menu and pick out a few recipes that can be prepared (or partially prepped) in advance.

Day of Party

Chill the drinks. Make sure the cold beverages make it into the fridge about four hours before party time to chill; transfer them to an ice-filled cooler (if using) about 20 minutes before guests are due to arrive.

Cue up the party playlist. Turning on the music will help get you in the mood while you finish prepping for the party — and if early birds arrive, it will feel festive, even if everything isn’t ready.

Set up an outdoor cleanup station. You’ll want to have a garbage can and a recycling bin available in the party area, plus a dishpan for transporting reusable dishes and platters to the kitchen for cleanup.

Organize the grill staging area. Get out your serving platters, tongs, grill brush and any other tools you like to have on hand while you cook.

Set up a self-serve food table. Help guests help themselves by setting out the necessities:

  • Dishes
  • Flatware
  • Napkins
  • Cups
  • A basket with bug repellant wipes and sunscreen
  • A bucket of ice with tongs
  • Serving spoons

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Finish preparing the food. The thing that makes barbecues less stressful than a capital-D Dinner Party is that your guests actually expect most of the cooking to happen after they arrive — so don’t stress if you’d hoped to have more done before the first guests show up. Pour some icy cold beverages and chat while you grill.

Kick back and savor your well-deserved relaxation time. Don’t be afraid to hand over the grilling tongs to someone else — and if people ask if they can help carry dirty dishes to the kitchen, say yes!