Three Ways Not to Screw Up Your Labor Day Cookout

Quick tips for throwing the best end-of-summer gathering.

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Hands using tongs to flip meat on a backyard grill
Photo: Picture This Images (Shutterstock)

We’re heading into the long Labor Day weekend, one that fills parents with joy and children with dread (if they’re not back to school already). If you’re hosting a backyard barbecue to celebrate the unofficial end of the summer season, here are a few common party pitfalls you can avoid.

Buy your groceries in advance

If you’re having guests over on a Monday holiday, it’s presumably because you have the day off work. So don’t find out the hard way that your local grocery store decided to afford the same time off for its workers and start complaining about how “nothing’s open today.” Labor Day in particular was established specifically to celebrate the American labor movement, so it’s only appropriate that these laborers get a breather, too.

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Try to buy your groceries a few days in advance so that you’re not only assured regular business hours, but aren’t stuck with a picked-over supply of whatever’s left on the shelves. The early bird gets the sweet corn and bargain-price Ball Park Franks, as they say.

Of course, life gets in the way, so you might have to run to the store on Monday to grab a few things you forgot earlier in the week. If that’s the case, be the courteous customer that the store’s employees deserve to deal with, rather than the frazzled cookout planner asking them to hurry up with the bagging so you can get home to prepare your marinade.

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Keep hot foods hot and cool foods cool

With any outdoor gathering, all the usual caveats about food safety apply; we’re not sure your guests would appreciate a few extra days off work by way of food poisoning.

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Early September can still be sticky and hot in many areas of the country, which means you don’t want your dishes sitting out in the elements too long. Keep everything refrigerated up until the moment it’s served, and repackage it promptly once the meal is complete. In fact, if it’s possible to serve things like potato salad packed on ice, you should—it’ll make every mouthful taste better.

Once a cut of meat has been pulled off the grill, you can rest it inside an empty cooler so that it doesn’t lose heat while its juices are settling. As explained here, you can line a clean, ice-less cooler with towels and lay a foil- or butcher-paper-wrapped cut of cooked meat in the bottom, and close the lid until it’s time to serve. This helps the meat continue to cook using carryover heat, and keeps it warm until all the other dishes are ready to go.

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Supply a range of drinks

If you want to be a truly accommodating host, have a selection of non-alcoholic options available for any guests who might not be drinking that day. Even folks who’d normally reach for a beer occasionally want to stick with spirit-free beverages, and in those cases it’s nice to have something on hand other than water. Soda, kombucha, seltzer, NA beer, hopped tea, shrubs—there are so many interesting choices that there’s no reason not to allow guests to select from at least a few of these, just as other guests might be given the option to choose from a range of beers or wine.

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And don’t forget to raise a glass to the laborers, both those in unions and those fighting to form one, because we owe our day off to the generations of folks who understood just what sort of rejuvenation a three-day weekend can bring.