How to Plan the Perfect BBQ or Picnic

Looking for ways to plan the perfect BBQ or picnic this summer? You’re not alone. Warmer weather makes us all want to shed layers and head outdoors to soak up the sun and have some fun with friends and when you add food and drinks into the mix you have a real hit on your hands. When that party is centered in the Berkshires? Well, let’s just say that the backdrop is almost as priceless as your new memories will be. Even if you can’t make it to Massachusetts, you can still use the tips below to design your ideal cookout or lakeside snack wherever your summer takes you. 

Ready? Let’s get started!

Set the Scene – There’s a reason five-star restaurants pay so much attention to diners’ surroundings. Restaurateurs pay big bucks to interior designers who are tasked with the job of creating a killer atmosphere that supports – but never overshadows – a carefully curated menu of food and drinks. Your picnic or BBQ doesn’t have to go to quite the same lengths but you should amp things up a bit beyond the typical gingham blanket and paper plates.

  • Mine the thrift store for cheap, mismatched dinnerware and fun and funky flatware
  • Use interesting fabric as a table runner or picnic blanket
  • Pay attention to lighting – think candles, tiki torches, and bistro lights hung above your backyard
  • Spruce up the pool (if you have one) with whimsical floaties

Send Out Themed Invitations – They don’t have to be fancy or fussy and you don’t have to go crazy with a theme, but a well-designed invitation makes even last-minute events seem more put-together. Including details like an address, phone number, the time the party starts and ends, and even what people can bring helps out everyone, too. You can send out snail mail invites if you have time, otherwise throw together a spiffy graphic using a site like Canva and invite everyone through Facebook.

Personalize When Possible – A formal dinner party might use place tags and the mere act of serving plated food makes the event seem more personal, but that’s harder to accomplish when planning the perfect BBQ or picnic. Offer each guest a unique tag for their beer bottle or wine glass and consider steak tags (metal picks you can stick in meat while it’s grilling) to keep each person’s protein straight – that’ll help with differentiated the mediums from the well-dones, too.

Prep Ahead of Time (Whenever Possible) – If you’re going to make your picnic and man the barbecue grill yourself, you’re going to need to invest in some preparation time. While an impromptu outing seems like a fun idea, it’s a lot less enjoyable when you’re frantically trying to assemble a pasta salad (that has yet to cool) or feed a huge group of hungry people without any burger toppings or cocktails ready to go. Side dishes can be made the night before, and you can pre-make sangria and marinades ahead of time, too. In fact, many things will taste better once the flavors have had a chance to meld.

No time to prep? Don’t be afraid to recruit assistance or buy a few things from your favorite little gourmet shop. You can still add some fresh herbs to a pre-bought corn salad or make a salad to go with the kabobs you snagged at the butcher if you really want to add your own special touch.

Pack Smart – If you’re trying to put together an unforgettable picnic, one of your biggest hurdles is going to be packing. Tossing a bottle of wine on top of your pastries or sandwich is a recipe for disaster and not properly heating or cooling items when necessary will lead to icky food and even ickier food poisoning. Before you load up the car and head out for some al fresco dining in the beautiful hills of western Massachusetts, get a game plan together:

  • Use ice packs to keep cold food cold. No ice packs handy? Freeze a few bottles of water – they’ll last for hours and it’s wonderful to have something frosty to drink when temps sore in the afternoon.
  • Include condiments, most notably salt and pepper. This is a good time to use up those extra packets of mustard, mayo, and ketchup that you’ve been saving from those late-night fast food runs.
  • If you have food items that need slicing or divvying up, a set of serving utensils (a sharp knife and a large spoon, for starters) will be helpful.
  • Bringing along some adult beverages? You’ll want a corkscrew or bottle opener.

Plan Some Entertainment – Some people might be happy just with a ton of food and drinks but others will get antsy without something to do besides small talk and burger flipping. Popular family reunion games like egg races, talent shows, scavenger hunts, softball, volleyball, family trivia (setting it up Jeopardy-style is always a blast), cornhole, and tug-o-war work well. If you’re staying in one of our Berkshire cottages at the Lake House, you can also offer guests opportunities for watersports like paddle boarding, swimming, fishing, and kayaking.

Make it Fun for the Kids – A bored child is not a happy child and sad kiddos will derail your party in a heartbeat. Some of the entertainment options above will work for kids but you can also put assemble activity packs that are particularly youth friendly. Keep the little ones busy with squirt guns (small ones that have to be reloaded often may be best for your sanity), a softball and pair of mitts, jump ropes, bubble wands, or a splash pool. An arts and crafts table with popsicle sticks, coloring books, or decorate your own cupcake/top your own pizza stations will occupy young minds for hours if you’re lucky.

Strategize the Perfect Menu – Give you creative free reign. You can cook up some family favorites, make it a potluck event (in which case you’ll want to have a master list and assign people certain courses, lest you end up with 27 batches of potato salad and little else), or go with a theme. Centering your menu around a central idea like a Hawaiian luau or Spanish tapas can be fun or you can go with something a bit more abstract like “food on a stick” (satay, watermelon and feta, smores), retro classics (jello salad, deviled eggs, and root beer floats), or British bits (Scotch eggs, Cornish pasties, and a summery trifle).

To plan the perfect BBQ or picnic for a trip to the Berkshires, consider honoring the wealth of locally sourced ingredients. Head to the Berkshire Coop (they have a Saturday farmer’s market, too), Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, or The Market Market – just to name a few options – and pick up everything from organic vegetables to artisanal bread and meats to prepared foods like sandwiches. You can also pick up local wine and other spirits from purveyors like Bartlett’s Orchard (snag some cider donuts while you’re at it) or Wandering Star Brewing Company.

Consider Dietary Restrictions – There’s no quicker way to ostracize a guest than making them feel excluded because there’s simply nothing for them to eat. Ask about dietary restrictions on your invite and try to incorporate at least one item those guests can eat. Don’t drive yourself crazy, though – you’re not a restaurant and you can’t accommodate everyone’s whims, even if they do have great reasons for their restrictions. Do your best and it will be greatly appreciated.

If you’re going to offer vegetarian or gluten-free items, keep cross-contamination in mind as much as possible. Don’t grill portobello mushrooms on the same part of the grate you used for steaks, keep bread away from sandwich fixings used by celiac sufferers (better yet, wrap and store their portions separately), and prepare items using designated cutting boards and utensils whenever possible.

Whip Up Some Signature Drinks – Whether you opt to offer some alcoholic options or go completely booze-free, signature drinks can jazz up your gathering and give you a chance to show off your mixology skills in the process. A few of our favorites:

Imagine sitting outside your lakeside hotel in Pittsfield, MA, and sipping on one of these beauties! Sheer perfection.

Beat Back the Bugs – Citronella candles, bug spray, long sleeves, a few spritzes of minty mouthwash – whatever you have to do to keep the bugs away, do it! Gnats, ants, and flies abound, especially in summer and whenever there’s food to be had, and you don’t want your guests to turn into the main course.

Keep Cleanup in Mind – BBQs and picnics are innately messy. All that barbecue sauce combines with dust and grill smoke to create a deluge of dirty hands and faces. Place plenty of paper towels and wet wipes around the table or tuck them in your picnic basket. Your guests will thank you and you’ll feel a lot better, too.

Don’t Forget To Join in on the Fun – Your guests appreciate the stellar grub and icy beverages, but they really came to spend time with you. Get out from behind the grill (delegate if need be) and say hi! You’re one of the star attractions and you deserve some leisure time too.

Looking for the perfect location for your next big get-together? Plan the perfect BBQ or picnic in one of the most picturesque spots in the U.S when you book your group at The Lake House in the stunning Berkshires. We’re more than just an ideal spot for lakeside lodging – from watersports to fully equipped kitchens (and yes, outdoor grill stations, too!) we offer the full Berkshires experience. You’re also centrally located with easy access to a number of picnic spots including Mount Greylock, along the Green River in Barrington, Windsor State Forest, Springside Park, and right here at home by the glittering Lake Pontoosuc.