Try These 8 Cheap Grilling Ideas for Backyard Cookouts

A father picks up his son to help him grill food in their backyard.
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Summer is the season for the great American cookout. Grills and barbecues across the country will soon be sizzling with traditional menu items like steaks, hot dogs and hamburgers as well as savory veggie options like black bean burgers and grilled mushrooms.

But when you add up the beers, burgers and potato salad, hosting a backyard cookout can burn a hole straight through your wallet. So how can you save money this summer?

We consulted two experts: Natalie Ramsey, owner of Red Bridges Barbecue in Shelby, North Carolina, and frequent Food Network celebrity judge Dr. BBQ, aka Ray Lampe of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Ramsey is the granddaughter of 2021 legacy Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee Lyttle Bridges and the first woman barbecue entrepreneur in North Carolina. Lampe, another Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee, is also ambassador for Louisiana Grills and spokesman for the National Turkey Federation.

Their eight expert tips for cooking out on a budget will set you up for summer success.

But first, let’s get something straight: Are you grilling or barbecuing?

BBQing vs. Grilling

The difference in technique is simple, but the distinction is an important one. “Basically, it’s low and slow versus hot and fast, direct versus indirect,” Lampe explained.

With barbecue, the heat circulates around the entire surface of the meat or veggie. With grilling, the heat comes from only one side. Barbecue is slow cooking and grilling has a much quicker result.

A bonus with a barbecue — less expensive cuts of meat really shine, like these options from BBQ Champs Academy.

“By nature, barbecue is taking the cheap cuts of meat and turning them into something delicious,“ Lampe said.

Both techniques can result in a delicious cookout, but don’t worry if you only have a grill.  Keep reading for tips to turn your grill into a barbecue or smoker.

8 Cheap Grilling Ideas for Summer

These expert tips should help you keep prices down while ramping up the flavor of your summer party food. And don’t mind us if we use the term “grilling” as an all-purpose cookout word. We know you do the same.

1. Stick to the Basics When You Buy Accessories

Walk down any outdoor cooking aisle or peruse them online, and you’re bombarded with a trove of pricey accessories. Don’t be tempted! Ramsey and Lampe both said only a few items are really necessary for successful outdoor cooking.

For Ramsey, the only essential accessory is wood. Wood chips can enhance the flavor of the food you’re grilling or barbecuing.

Lampe’s go-to accessory is an instant read thermometer, which can be found at affordable prices. “We’ve learned that the internal temperature of meat is critically important for getting it done right. You don’t want to guess or go by time. If you buy an instant read thermometer, you won’t make mistakes,” said Lampe.

That means you can skip the basting brushes, rotisserie, grill brushes, trays, skewers, gloves and grilling shears.

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2. Consider These Factors When Buying a Grill or Barbecue

Want to fuel the fire among avid grillers and barbecue enthusiasts? Ask them whether they prefer a gas or charcoal grill or barbecue, then stand back and watch the sparks fly. But if you’re debating price, they’re both pretty affordable in our book.

If you don’t already have a grill or supplies such as charcoal, you can save money scoring them during the summertime holiday sales. Home improvement stores often have aggressive sales on charcoal, so stock up when the prices drop.

To Lampe, quality is key and he advises choosing a grill that fits with what you want to cook. “Look for one that’s made well. It’s something you’re going to use a lot and it will last you years if you choose a good one. So think of it as a good investment,’’ Lampe said. “Open it up and take a look inside. See what the mechanics of it look like. If it’s steel, is it heavy duty steel? If it feels cheap, it probably is. Look for one that’s made better.”

3. Turn Your Grill Into a Barbecue or Smoker

Do you crave that extra smoky flavor you can only achieve by slow cooking with indirect heat? Barbecues or smokers can be expensive, but if you have a charcoal or gas grill it’s possible to reach smoky nirvana without an additional pricey appliance.

According to Lampe, “If you’ve got a grill and you’re curious about smoking, there’s all kinds of ways to get that wood flavor, even on a gas grill.”

In order to mimic a barbecue, you’ll need to learn about hot and cold zones and make use of things like wood chips, smoking liquids and water pans depending on whether you’re using a gas grill or a charcoal grill for your faux barbecue. The methods are slightly different, but with both you can be on your way to a delicious barbecue without the price tag.

4. Explore Meatless Options

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In addition to finding bargains on meat (more on that later), “you could cook vegetables too,” Lampe said. With meat prices soaring, it’s a great time to spice up your cookout with meatless fare, especially if you’re cooking for lots of guests.

Veggie sides are even more delicious on the grill, like this mushroom antipasto salad from Epicurious. But vegetables can also be the star of your main dish. For the budget griller and barbecuer, these 38 veggie entrees from My Recipes are sure to please. Don’t shy away from fruit either, which is made sweeter when it’s grilled. Serve grilled peaches and pineapple with pork chops.

Veg Out Magazine has a list of plant-based options like Beyond Burgers ideal for grilling or barbecuing, though they can be pricey. Watch for sales and use that freezer.

5. Grind Your Own Food and Shop Sales

Many pay extra for those premade patties and prepackaged cuts. Not Lampe, who advises making your own patties, shopping the sales or, better yet, grinding your own meat. They will all cost less.

“Look for ground beef when it’s on sale or if you have the ability to grind it yourself, you can make really great ground beef,” he said. Cheap meat grinders run from $15 to $40, while a high-end one costs about $200. It could be a worthy investment, especially if you’re going for expert griller status.

6. Look for Less Expensive Cuts

Keep an eye out for less expensive cuts like beef back ribs or chuck eye steak.

As for your non-burger meats? Lampe advises looking out for pork loin, and recommends using a brine. “Don’t be afraid to grab chicken and turkey. Turkey is a great value in the barbecue pit and on the grill,” he said.

7. Make Your Own Rubs and Sauces

Making a delicious rub or BBQ sauce is easier than you think. In fact, you might already have the typical ingredients like salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup and vinegar in your kitchen.

“On a budget, all you need is wood, ketchup and vinegar. For sauce, the one must-have ingredient is vinegar,” Ramsey said.

Lampe also advises keeping it simple. “If you’re looking to make a simple rub on a budget, you can rob the spice cabinet for a little salt, sugar, pepper and some flavor. Paprika is nice because it adds color to the food. Don’t be afraid to experiment,” he said.

So, skip store bought and get creative. The best part — you control the quality of the ingredients and the flavors! You can start by browsing these 17 rub recipes and these 24 homemade BBQ sauce recipes.

Want to save more more on your summer party menus? We’ve rounded up 10 smart ways to save money on spices.

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8. Don’t Let Anything Go to Waste

Kitchen food waste is a big, wasteful deal in the U.S. Using everything you have can mean big savings — and delicious meals — when it comes to grilling.

There’s a whole world of unusual foods you can grill to prevent food waste and liven up a backyard shindig. Bacon-wrapped asparagus? Yes, please. Wrap the traditional ingredients for a Cajun boil in foil and let them tramp over an open fire. Pizza can get the grill treatment, too.

Now there’s only one thing left to do: Crack open a cold brewski and bask in the tradition of the outdoor cookout.

Contributor Veronica Matthews specializes in lifestyle topics. Former staffer Stephanie Bolling contributed to this report.