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Plan the best barbecue

Throwing some food on the grill and filling up a cooler aren't difficult tasks, but to throw the ultimate summer barbecue take a few steps ahead of time.

If you're planning your barbecue weeks in advance, take the time to send invitations. You can make cards by hand or print them from your computer, or you can save on postage and send invitations via email or through an e-vite Web site. If you've got the time, you can call your friends on the phone, but they'll appreciate some sort of written reminder of the big soiree with details.

Include the date, time, address, directions and a suggested dish to bring. You can ask for your guests to bring their own beverages and meats, while you'll provide side dishes and snacks. Another idea that prevents multiple servings of coleslaw and potato salad is to designate what each guest should bring, for example, dessert, vegetable dish, soda, casserole or beer. If your barbecue will not be a potluck, tell your guests to just bring their appetites.

A Fourth of July barbecue already has a built-in theme, but you can ask your guests to expand on the red, white and blue. Possible themes for people to dress up as include: national monuments, Uncle Sam, war heroes, presidents and American pastimes. For themed barbecues outside of Independence Day try: Hawaiian luau, Mexican fiesta, pirate attire or Western wear.

Set some parameters for your barbecue. Can guests bring their children? Will alcohol be served? Are dogs welcome? Will there be plenty of vegetarian options? Make sure to let your guests know what you decide ahead of time.

Next, plan what you'll be cooking and create a grocery list. Don't forget to pick up paper plates, cups and napkins, as well as plastic forks, knives and spoons, or ensure you have enough regular serving dishes and silverware so everyone can eat at the same time. While you're shopping, pick up bags of ice, sturdy trash bags, extra toilet paper and plenty of condiments.

A few days or the day before the barbecue, prepare whatever food you can. Also, clean up your yard and any other areas of your home where guests will be welcome. Create a playlist for your iPod or computer stereo and point your speakers outside. Gather lawn chairs and patio tables and make a circle. If you have any lawn games, like bocce ball and horseshoes, pull them out of the garage and set them up in an area a safe distance from the grill.

The day of the barbecue make sure there's plenty of ice in your coolers and set up trash and recycling bins in strategic areas of your yard. Start the music and hope for a sunny day.