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The Discourse

Cookout Sides, Ranked

We're setting aside the hot dogs, hamburgers, and wings and celebrating the best (and worst) cookout sides.


This weekend marks the 4th of July, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know we have some complicated and dare I say negative feelings about this country and its origin myths. We’re going to discuss Independence Day here as a cookout, an excuse to gather with friends, drink beers, jump in a pool, and eat delicious food. Specifically, the sides.

Cookouts are arguably my favorite part of the summer, and although I’ve been a non-beef/pork/poultry eater for more than a decade at this point I’ve always been totally content with sacrificing the protein for a paper plate full of side dishes. So for this year we’re setting aside the hot dogs, hamburgers, and wings and celebrating the best (and worst) cookout sides.

One caveat: This is by no means an exhaustive list of every single cookout side, or every single preparation of all of these sides. If your meemaw had an incredible beet salad dish, I love that for you, but I’m living my own truth here. Onto the list!

20. Beet salad

I already kind of gave this away but yeah this shit is gross.

19. Coleslaw

Various forms of slaw can be good, but the one I grew up with and ate at countless family functions and on summer nights is the mayo-based form, which I have not eaten in at least six or seven years but would be fine with never eating again my life.

18. Crudites

I like a vegetable plate but not at a cookout. To start, it usually comes with ranch dip, which is a worse form of French onion dip, not to mention it’s kind of lazy. Also half of the vegetables are not ideal for it. How am I supposed to dip a grape tomato in ranch and not look like a complete fool?

17. Regular salad

Fine, I guess?

16. Macaroni salad

Not inedible, but there are better mayo-based salads and better uses for macaroni. Next!

15. Fruit salad

A lot of good components here that are better on their own and without honeydew.

14. Baked beans

Baked beans are complicated. On a random Tuesday night in the summer when all you’re eating is a hot dog or two, baked beans can be a perfect side. But when you’ve got a crowded table with a bunch of extremely good options, baked beans get lost to some much better alternatives.

13. Grilled pineapple

Grilled pineapple itself tastes great and really complements a plate of savory food, but it’s a pain in the ass to prepare. I will definitely eat it but I’m not gonna make it sorry.

12. Stuffed celery

This was a staple that my grandmother made at cookouts during my childhood and also, weirdly, Thanksgiving. I don’t eat it as much anymore, but it’s so simple—just a bunch of cream cheese in a celery pocket—and so good. The keto freak in your life will love it and also never shut up about it.

11. Cheese plate

I’m not sure if it’s fair to call this a side, because like a veggie plate it’s usually just an appetizer at a cookout. But on the other hand: how can you go wrong with a bunch of tiny squares of cheddar cheese and some crackers?

10. Chips and dip

Same deal but better than a cheese plate.


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9. Tomato and cucumber salad

We’re still pretty far down on the list but this is a really simple thing to make and yet still a really solid injection of freshness into a plate that’s full of hot dogs and potato salad. This is a great recipe for it.

8. Veggie kabobs

It’s hard to find room on the grill for veggie skewers sometimes and that’s a shame, because a big stick of a bunch of different vegetables on a stick with some balsamic vinegar or teriyaki sauce is a pretty low-effort thing that rules. My favorite part are the mushroom caps.

7. Watermelon

Great with salt, great without salt, not gonna try the mustard thing but you do you.

6. Pasta salad

The best version of pasta salad can be a top-3 cookout side, but it’s enough of a crapshoot that it’s just outside the top five.

5. Shrimp and cocktail sauce

More of an appetizer but who cares, it’s a staple and always great when done even remotely well.

4. Corn on the cob

Elote is by far the best version of corn on the cob, but even something more plain with butter and salt is tasty as hell. The only strike against it, for me at least, is that I’ve got my limit with it and it’s usually one half of an ear. But don’t cry because it’s over smile because it happened etc.

3. Macaroni and cheese

This is very often the best side at a cookout, a staple of every good plate of barbecue, and on balance the best food on this list. The only reason it’s not #1 is because I’m usually having this meal at 2 or 3 p.m., full of beer and (hopefully) between trips into some body of water, and macaroni and cheese doesn’t exactly sit super well in this scenario. With that said, it’s worth the punishment.

2. Deviled eggs

There are so many variations of this and I’ve never had a bad one. Eggs, mayonnaise, dijon, paprika—what’s not to love?

  1. Potato salad

100% perfect in every way, God’s chosen side dish.