Summer Vacation Etiquette – Part 4: Fourth of July Barbecue

Barbecue Manners

For many Americans, nothing says summer has arrived like a Fourth of July celebration.  Roughly two weeks following the summer solstice, The Fourth is a great marker for the seasonal passage.

There are many ways we Americans celebrate The Fourth.  Among the favorites is the barbecue; following are some etiquette guidelines to make them even more enjoyable:

If You’re the Host

Consider your guests’ comfort and enjoyment first and foremost:

  • Be generous with the kind and amount of food.  Take into account the dietary preferences and requirements of everyone, including appropriate dishes for vegans and those who have other dietary concerns or religious issues.   
  • Provide one long table or several smaller tables for a sit-down feast rather than have your guests mill about standing up and juggling their plate and drinks.   To protect from the sun, place umbrellas over the tables or pass out hats.  Have fun with patriotic decorations and clever place settings.
  • Prepare and organize to avoid inconvenience to you or your guests.  The patio should be clean and neat, the yard mowed and weeded, the grill cleaned, propane tank filled and other equipment and utensils cleaned and ready to go.  Purchase enough food, drinks and paper goods for everyone, including any unexpected guests or drop-ins.   
  • Decide whether you’ll use paper or cloth.  Paper is traditional for outdoor parties, but for an elegant and relaxing al fresco dining experience use cloth table coverings and napkins and real china, glass and stainless utensils.
  • Add green to the red, white &blue.  You might not be able to recycle the paper goods if they’re soiled, so using reusable products might be better providing you won’t need a lot of water and electricity to launder them.
  • Accommodate smoking guests.  Provide a sand-filled receptacle away from the main gathering place; doing so will protect your non-smoking guests and your property while being gracious to smoking friends. 
  • When serving alcohol, consider the level of heat.  Try to serve alcohol later in the day to avoid the combination of sun, heat and liquor.  If your guests will be taking a dip in your pool or jumping in the lake, remember that drinking and water activities are an undesirable combination.
  • Remember the children.  Plan outdoor and indoor activities for children—just in case.
  • Don’t forget the dogs.  If you have dogs, make sure they will be supervised so they don’t leave your property, knock over children, jump up on adults or steal food.
  • Say goodnight, Gracie.  It’s fine to steer lingering guests gently but firmly to the gate with a final thank-you for their homemade jalapeño-strawberry-mocha salsa.

If You’re a Guest

  • Respond to an invitation promptly, arrive on time and don’t overstay your welcome. Arrive within 15 minutes of the designated start time and don’t linger until you see your hosts nodding off. 
  • Bring a gift.  Don’t arrive empty-handed.  Bring a fancy nut arrangement, unusual condiment or after-dinner mints.  Don’t bring flowers or liquor.
  • Deal with the menu.  If you’re a vegan or have other dietary requirements or preferences, be prepared to work with whatever food choices are available.  Only if you have a serious medical condition or allergy is it acceptable to mention your food issues to your host beforehand.
  • Don’t bother the chef.  One of the most serious faux pas in barbecue etiquette is offering advice, well-meaning though it may be, to the chef!  Venture near the grilling station briefly, and only to offer a compliment (“that smells heavenly” or “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful”). 
  • Be thoughtful of your host’s property, possessions, time.  Be gentle with the tableware, avoid overuse of paper goods, don’t litter, refrain from smoking except in any designated area, clean up after yourself and offer assistance to your host on setting up, cleaning up or child or dog wrangling.  In other words, be a helpful guest.      
  • Converse in a pleasant, upbeat manner.  You might be eager to rant about the results of the big game or recent election, but save it for another time.  Join in or start conversations on upbeat, amusing or neutral topics and keep it light, and don’t interrupt others.  If a dicey topic does come up, disengage yourself or add a touch of wit and humor.
  • Practice good dining etiquette.  Good manners should not be reserved for formal luncheons and dinners; they should also accompany you when you slip on shorts or jeans.  These include:
    • Using your napkin to blot your lips and clean your fingers
    • Sitting up straight and keeping your elbows off the table
    • Avoiding boarding house reaches and intercepting items being passed to others
    • Taking small bites of your food and sips of your drink to facilitate conversing while dining
    • Cutting off a bite or two of your meat at a time rather than cutting it all up at once
    • Not speaking with your mouth full or waving your utensils while speaking.
    • Avoiding loud speech or laughter
    • Refraining from picking your teeth in public
    • Listening attentively to others when they speak, making eye contact and smiling
    • Not leaving the table without excusing yourself (no need to say why your leaving, especially if it’s to visit the loo), and not returning promptly.
    • Not commenting on what others are eating or how they are eating it.
  • Handle messy and finger foods with assurance and ease:
    • Hot dogs and hamburgers: Either may be eaten by holding it with both hands, taking a small bite and putting it back down on your plate.  You may also cut either in half and pick up each half with both hands.  Avoid eating with one hand and holding your drink in another; instead, take a bite, put down your food, swallow and pick up your glass in the same hand and take a sip of your drink.
    • Corn-on-the cob:  Pick up the corn with two hands, preferably with prong holders to keep your hands clean.  Take the equivalent of a pat or two of butter from the communal butter dish with your knife and place it on the edge of your plate, then butter your corn.  Eat as quietly as possible, taking one bite at a time and using your napkin frequently.
    • Condiments, crudités, olives & pickles:  At a barbecue, you may shake or squeeze ketchup and mustard directly from the bottle onto your hot dog or hamburger, but avoid smothering your food with them.  Other condiments, such as sauerkraut, onions, etc., might be served in dishes; in that case, take small amounts, place them on your plate and spread them on your food with a knife or spoon.  Other finger foods should be taken on your plate with a serving spoon or fork, and then eaten from the plate with your fingers.
    • Salt & Pepper:  Don’t season your food before tasting it; pass both together and don’t intercept them while they’re being passed to someone else.
    • Watermelon:  Hold a slice of watermelon with both hands and eat it in small bites.  Unless you cannot eat seeds for health reasons, it’s okay to swallow them whole or chew and swallow them, but it might not be polite to do so when dining with others.  You may remove them with your fingers and put them to the side of your plate.  It is also acceptable to place the slice of watermelon on your plate, remove the seeds with your forks and move them to the side of your plate and then cut and eat one bite-size piece at a time with your fork.
  • Drinking beer and wine.  At a barbecue, both beer and wine may be drunk from either plastic or glass tumblers.  Beer may also be drunk directly from the can or bottle.  While you might have very definite preferences as to how to drink wine and beer, to be polite and thoughtful of your hosts go with whatever they are providing.

Finally, because July 4th is the birth of the American government, click here a bit of Flag etiquette.

Have a glorious Fourth!  And check back next Tuesday for the next in the series of vacation etiquette.  And, please feel free to comment or pose a question!

Until next time,


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