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If you’ve finally recovered from the dog days of summer and are trying to plan one last hurrah before breaking out your fall apparel, there’s no better way to celebrate than by planning an epic lobster feast for family and friends. A Labor Day lobster feast is the perfect occasion for going all-out with top quality crustaceans, a decorative table setting, and mouthwatering seasonal side dishes that threaten to steal the show.

It’s a nice change from burgers and hot dogs and certainly makes for a festive Labor Day party. You have options when it comes to the main event, too; you can grill your lobster, go for lobster rolls instead of whole crustaceans, or even lighten up with a lobster salad.

In any case, choose make-ahead side dishes, elegant yet effortless appetizers, and easy desserts and you’ll be surprised how low-stress a legendary lobster feast can be.

Step 1: Choose Your Lobster

how to choose a live lobster


The first step in throwing a successful lobster feast starts with the obvious: finding a first-rate lobster. Lobster expert Ben Conniff (one of the founders of Luke’s Lobster, which started in the East Village in 2009 and now has almost a dozen locations) offers some tips for finding the freshest catch: “First of all, the lobster should be frisky and energetic when you pick it up. The longer it’s out of its natural habitat, the more it weakens and its energy wanes.” Another tip? You should be sure to check out the antennae of any lobster that you’re buying from a supermarket tank. Ben’s insider knowledge comes in handy when trying to select the freshest lobster: “You can also spot a lobster that’s spent a lot of time out of the ocean in a tank if it has short antennae, as lobsters in captivity will snack on one another’s antennae when they get hungry.”

Read More: Chowhounds’ Tips for How to Choose the Best Live Lobster

Lobsters are most frequently caught in traps, which are maintained by individual lobstermen who visit them daily. There are numerous laws and regulations in place to protect the Homarus americanus, or American lobster, found in the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Maine. Conniff explains the importance of these laws, saying that the “lobstermen adhere to stringent regulations that keep the most reproductive lobsters in the population, such as requiring juvenile vents in traps so that those who have yet to breed have a chance to escape; a requirement to throw back both under-sized lobsters and over-sized lobsters, which produce exponentially more eggs; and marking and throwing back any egg-bearing females so that they can never be captured.”

Step 2: Treat It Right

What to do once you’ve found the perfect lobster? Now you need to learn how to properly cook it and break it down to maximize flavor and minimize mess. Sometimes, with new shell lobsters, you won’t even need any tools at all. If you have a hard shell lobster, Conniff recommends the use of a “a standard lobster cracker, [which] works great to break into the claws and knuckles.

Pure & SimpleBasic Steamed LobsterAt Luke’s at Tenants Harbor…the guests traditionally crack their lobster with rocks from the islands, which works just as well. For the tail you shouldn’t need any tools no matter how hard the shell; just twist the tail off the body, peel off the flippers, insert your thumb into the little hole where the flippers used to be, and push the whole tail out the larger hole at the opposite end. For the claws, the first thing you should do is bend back and break off the “thumb” on each, then slowly pull out the blade of cartilage attached to it so that it doesn’t get stuck inside the claw.” Conniff recommends eating any leftover lobster (stored in a normal refrigerator at standard temperature) no more than two days after cooking, to be safe.

Read More: The Best Seafood Dinners You Can Have Delivered | Try Ina Garten’s Easy Stovetop Clambake

Step 3: Set the Scene

As for setting the table, keep it casual and low-key by tying a ribbon or some twine around a brightly colored napkin and compostable utensils for a simple, yet elegant (and portable!) picnic place setting. Elevate your lobster feast with small touches like custom lobster bibs for the event, unique candleholders, and mix-and-match plates, cups, and glasses (shatterproof dinnerware is always good for outdoor dining). Festive paper goods, like red-and-blue paper plates and napkins, are a great touch as are picnic blankets, portable chairs, and nautical-themed accessories.

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You could even create a hollowed-out watermelon to use as a decorative flower holder. Make great watermelon cocktails with the inside of the watermelon before preserving the rind as a makeshift vase that screams summer.

Be sure to provide lobster crackers for everyone–you can stack them in the middle of the table or set one at every place (you can even write your guests’ names on them and give them as a party favor if you’re not sure what to do with leftover crackers).

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And don’t skimp on the side dishes: Keep it relaxed and seasonally appropriate, with fresh corn, tomatoes, summer squash, avocados, or a simple grain salad. The lobster is the star of the show here and the simpler the side dishes, the better—but it’s nice to have a lot of fresh options to choose from.

Read More: The Ultimate Summer Salad Guide

Providing a wide array of condiments is also a great way to let people customize their lobster dish–bright aioli, tartar sauce, mayonnaise, herbed lemon dipping sauce, spicy aji verde: All are fair game. Set out a variety of condiments in small, matching glass Pyrex bowls so guests can create their favorite combos—or put them in lidded jars (like Weck jars) for a stylish and practical touch that will keep those pesky bugs away too! You can easily stack and pack the jars for travel to your picnic site. They also make a great way to store leftovers.

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Read More: Handy Hacks for Outdoor Entertaining

Lobster Feast Recipes

Try some of these lobster recipes; there’s sure to be one that’s just right for the vibe you’re going for, and they’re all delicious.

Basic Steamed Lobster

Basic Steamed Lobster recipe


This is the classic method for cooking lobster, and you can put as many lobsters as you want into the same pot. Check the lobster around 14 to 15 minutes after submerging it in boiling water to make sure that you’re not overcooking it (and make sure that it’s bright red in color before taking it out of the pot). Get our Basic Steamed Lobster recipe.

Lobster Risotto

lobster risotto recipe


Lobster risotto is a great way to make a little lobster go a long way, and exponentially increases the elegance factor of your soiree. This recipe feeds six but only has two full lobsters in it—you can also use the leftovers (if there are any) to make delicious risotto cakes the next day or serve them for brunch with hollandaise. Get our Lobster Risotto recipe.

Lobster Roll

mayo-free lobster roll recipe


Tarragon and lemon juice make for a zesty mayo-free lobster roll that you can serve for the perfect summer lunch. Make sure to butter the buns and serve them warm. Pile the lobster into the roll and add a bag of chips for a full meal. Get our Lobster Roll recipe.

New England Lobster Roll

New England Lobster Roll recipe


The New England Lobster Roll is mayonnaise-based instead of butter-based. You can use store-bought mayo if you’re running short on time but homemade mayonnaise will make these rolls really special. Get our New England Lobster Roll recipe.

Read More: 7 Rules for Perfect Lobster Rolls

Lobster Salad

Warm Lobster Salad recipe


Lobster salad is essentially like taking your favorite lobster roll, doubling the proportions and then dumping it on a bed of fresh Boston lettuce. Olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper make for a simple but tasty vinaigrette that lets the lobster flavor shine through. Get our Lobster Salad recipe.

Lobster Mac and Cheese

Lobster Mac and Cheese recipe


Adding lobster to macaroni and cheese is one of the only true ways to make it even more decadent. White cheddar and Gruyère make a great combination and panko breadcrumbs add a crisply top layer that’s hard to resist. Get our Lobster Mac and Cheese recipe.

New England Clambake with Lobster

easy New England clambake with lobster


A New England clambake is a classic option that never, ever gets old. Best cooked in a pit on the beach perhaps, this seafood celebration is just as drool-worthy made on the stovetop. It includes lobsters, mussels, clams, and then pork sausage for added flavor. A beer broth made from your favorite brew is a tasty touch that is best capitalized on with a crunchy baguette or roll for dipping. Get our New England Clambake recipe.

One thing that always pairs well with lobster? A cold chalice of Stella Artois. Stella Artois helps hosts add that special touch to whatever event they’re looking to throw–Labor Day lobster feasts included. But you couldn’t go wrong with a little bubbly or batch drinks either.

This post was originally published on August 16, 2016 and has been updated with additional images, links, and text.

Header image courtesy of Yvonne Duivenvoorden/Getty Images

Caitlin M. O'Shaughnessy is a New York City–based food writer and editor at Penguin who has worked on and recipe-tested several cookbooks. She is currently in search of NYC’s best ramen, and is one of the few people who admit to disliking brunch.
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