Easy Cookout Side Dishes for a Summertime Meal
Our 17 smart and simple sides guarantee a barbecue you'll remember, long after the coals have cooled down
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The grill is lit, the music is on, and everyone’s glass is full of something cool and refreshing. The backyard barbecue scene is all set. But now, imagine it with no sides. No fun, right?
We pay so much attention to meaty mains with grilling, but sides shouldn’t be an afterthought. Good cookout sides make or break a barbecue. With that in mind, here are a bunch of fresh and colorful, easy cookout side dishes to round out grilling at home — or to bring along to a potluck, once we’re past the quarantine.
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Plan your sides and make them ahead of time
Summer side dishes are all about ease and balance. You don’t want to spend all your time in a hot kitchen when you could be lazing on the deck. Though I’ve included quick side dish recipes you can make on a whim, when possible, a little legwork pays off.
Can you pack it? If grilling and picnicking at a park are possible in your location, think about how packable your side dish is. Many salads look and taste more appealing when assembled or tossed right before serving; in that case, just bring the dressing separately and finish on-site.
Does it need to be made ahead? On the other hand, some salads (like layered salad and vinegar slaw) only get better as they chill. Check to see if the recipe you’ve chosen needs to sit or chill for many hours — it’s not fun to discover as you’re making something last-minute that it needs to marinate overnight.
Variety makes good sides for a summer cookout
When we’re back to doing potlucks, you can almost always assume someone will bring hummus and veggies and someone else will bring salsa and chips. In the meantime, let these tips help you decide what to make, even if it’s just the family gathering in the backyard.
Get double use from your salsa. If you’re making salsa, perhaps do a creative spin on it, for example a fruit salsa, which can also double as a fresh topper for grilled seafood, pork, or chicken.
Try cold salads. When it’s hot outside and a smoking grill is nearby, cold or room temperature salads always hit the spot. They’re also easier to serve when dining al fresco.
Hot dishes: got electricity? If you have a hot cookout side dish and you made it in a slow cooker, consider if there will be an outlet handy.
Match rich with light. If you’re serving fatty bbq ribs, lighten up your slaw with a vinegar-based dressing. Contrasting textures and temperatures help keep things interesting.
Plan for special diets. A lot of classic picnic sides, like cole slaw or potato salad, are gluten-free. Vinegar-based potato or grain salads are vegan, and a lot of hearty salads make great Paleo cookout sides, depending on what you add. Remember to watch out for stealth no-no ingredients (like honey for vegans or soy sauce for Paleo).
Whatever you wind up making, remember that fun is your M.O. Whether it’s family, close friends, or new ones. Food only tastes better when you’re sharing it with good people on a beautiful day.
Dip recipes that double as toppers or salads
One way to take it easy in the kitchen when you’re prepping for your barbecue is to choose a dip that can serve for both appetizers and the main meal.
With this recipe you've got a dip for chips, plus a topper for grilled pork, chicken breasts, or salmon. The bright color and fresh flavors of the mango, cilantro, red onion, and jalapeño will be irresistible at a backyard spread. Leftovers keep for a few days, but for the best looks and flavor, make this only a few hours before serving. (Never cut a mango before? The recipe includes a how-to video.)
Texas caviar is as much a bean salad as it is a dip. This one keeps it simple with only black-eyed peas (a must), fresh hot chilies, bell pepper and scallions, and a few plum tomatoes. Serve this with tortilla chips, though it’s good enough to eat on its own with a fork. Leftovers keep in a jar in the fridge for snacking.
Quickly charring the cut avocados on the grill imbues them with smoky flavor, which is echoed by the chipotle powder. It’s best to make this at least an hour ahead of time so the finished guacamole can chill in the fridge. And if you don’t have a grill, you can still make this and just skip the grilling step.
Classic cookout side dish recipes
Do backyard barbecues at your home mean it's time to queue up the traditional summer sides you dream of all winter long? These recipes are for you.
A cookout isn’t a cookout without creamy coleslaw. For one, it does double duty as a side and a topping for hot dogs and bbq pork sandwiches. If you don’t keep buttermilk on hand, don’t fret: try sour cream or plain yogurt instead. Open up a bag of coleslaw mix as directed in the recipe or shred enough cabbage to make about 4 cups, if you’re in the mood, and grate a carrot in there while you’re at it.
This sweet and tangy recipe makes a ton, but that’s okay, because it only gets better with time. Make it at least a day in advance so the sweet dressing can penetrate the cabbage, and enjoy leftovers for days after your cookout. It pairs as nicely with Southern-style barbecue as it does burgers or grilled chicken.
If you’re looking for kid-friendly side dishes, look no further. Kids love cornbread, and adults seem to adore it, too. This one is sweet, but not overly so. Sure, they’re using a fork in the photo, but we suggest eating this with your hands. For a gluten-free cookout side, replace the all-purpose flour with a gluten-free baking blend (like Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1 for 1 Baking Flour).
This is the potato salad people daydream about, complete with hard-boiled eggs and diced celery. There are a few keys to getting any potato salad right: Boil the potatoes in salted water so they’re flavorful from the inside out; use medium-starch potatoes like Yukon Golds, which boil up neither dry nor waxy; and taste the chilled salad before you serve it.
This classic make-ahead salad is a production to make, but it’s a colorful showstopper that people scrape the bowl to get the dregs of. Crisp iceberg lettuce, sweet green peas, salty-crunchy bacon, and a creamy sour cream layer are just small parts of what make this potluck staple irresistible.
Yes, you can make baked beans from scratch, but almost always if you doctor up canned baked beans, people are just as happy and you don’t need to do much besides open cans, chop half an onion, and measure out a few seasonings. Mix everything right in the baking dish, pop it in the oven, and in less than an hour it’s good to go.
BLTs are a summer institution, but they’re not very cookout-friendly. A BLT pasta salad, however, combines those flavors in a single tempting take on macaroni salad. Wait until just before serving to add the bacon and lettuce so the lettuce doesn’t get tired and the bacon stays crispy.
Creative cookout side dish recipes
Maybe you’re looking for go-withs for your cookout that aren’t the same-old, same-old, and if that's the case you'll find a number of exciting choices here.
Got a spiralizer tucked into the back of the cupboard? It'll make quick work of creating zucchini ribbons; in fact, this refreshing raw salad takes only about 20 minutes to put together — and it gets tastier if the zucchini noodles, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella balls can marinate with the dressing at least 10 minutes.
A patriotic palette doesn’t have to be for 4th of July desserts only! It is indeed possible to make 4th of July cookout side dishes without food coloring. (Bonus: Showy strawberries and blueberries are packed with antioxidants.) Serve this over greens to make it even more substantial. If quinoa isn’t your thing, try cooked couscous.
Really good sweet corn needs little embellishment, but with a slightly spicy sprinkling of smoky paprika and a little cheese, people are magnetically drawn to it. Cutting the cobs in smaller segments makes these grazing-friendly and kid-friendly. Bake them, broil them, or grill them. So many options! You can’t beat sweet corn for a quick cookout side dish, so if seasoned corn isn’t want you want, we have Instant Pot Corn on the Cob and Crockpot Corn on the Cob, too!
If you’re a fan of Mexican street food, you already know and love elote — deliciously messy ears of grilled corn rolled in mayonnaise, salty crumbled cheese, and ground chilies, with a squeeze of lime. Now imagine a corn salad version that doesn’t require multiple napkins, and you have this recipe. If you can’t find queso fresco, use feta.
If you made cornbread, you are halfway done with this tomato salad. Dry the cornbread in the oven about 15 minutes to make crumbly croutons. The salad is one you make and serve on the spot, so if you’re bringing it to a picnic, pack the components apart, arrange it on a platter, and dress it right before serving.
Veggies often seem to be in short supply at cookouts, and this mayo-free potato salad made with a Dijon vinaigrette sneaks them in. Green beans always taste best in the summer, anyway, especially if you can score some from a farmer’s market or a friend’s garden. The recipe calls for small white potatoes, but red skin potatoes or any fancy fingerling would work as well.
A lot of classic bbq sides tend to be heavy, which doesn’t always jive with an afternoon in the sun. This fresh, light, low-calorie cookout side is not quite a full-blown fruit salad, not quite a dessert, and all the way what you can’t stop nibbling on. A sprinkling of fresh basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar wake the fruity flavors right up.
Complete your barbecue feast
Now that you’ve got your sides figured out, how about some drinks, burgers, or cool desserts for the rest of the meal?