Best Side Dishes to Bring to a Potluck Cookout


When it comes to finding the best side dishes to bring to your next potluck cookout, you have some intriguing choices. There are definitely some easy staples that are always crowd pleasers, without making you look like “That Guy” who took the easy way out by showing up with a couple of bags of plain chips grabbed at the gas station on the way over.

Then there are some slightly more exotic options that don’t necessarily challenge people’s comfort zone as much as Escargot but still expand the horizons of everyone who tries them.

So, it behooves us to look at both the traditional favorites, with what makes them great. Then a few game-changing side dishes that aren’t impossible to find or make, but will definitely make a statement at your next potluck cookout.


Tips for Choosing the Best Traditional Cookout Side Dishes

There’s nothing wrong with traditional side dishes at a potluck cookout. People sort of accept that they’re going to be there and they would miss things like potato chips if there wasn’t a crispy one in sight. The trick to being a good guest who gets invited back every time is to get the best version of the staple.


How to Bring Chips without Being “That Guy”

No offense to all the bachelors out there, but showing up with one bag of plain gas station potato chips. At the same time, if there weren’t chips at a potluck cookout, it would feel like something was missing.

So, the trick here is to make sure you overdo it for the expected number of guests. Make sure that there are enough plain potato chips, and then include a bag or three of exotic flavors like salt & vinegar, classic sour cream & onion or something that will spice up the experience. When choosing plain chips, it’s better to go with ripple or kettle-style chips as they are more likely to be able to stand up being dragged through dip!


Buy the Best Baked Beans

Baked beans are another staple that most people expect to find at a potluck cookout. Just don’t skimp here on the discount beans in a runny red sauce that spreads across the plate.

Spring for the ones that have the brown gravy and a talking dog. Then go a step further and get one of the interesting varieties with something extra added. Make sure to bring a slotted serving spoon with you, so when people do take a big scoop of baked beans, they don’t end up flooding their plate with gravy.


Picking the Perfect Potluck Potato Salad

You’d be surprised what passes as potato salad these days. Though whether you’re making your own, or you’re buying it from the store, the thing that makes the most difference is the volume of egg. Pale, white potato salad with just a hint of yellow from a tiny squirt of mustard will get passed by in a blink, and it makes you look cheap.

If you’re making it yourself, then you want to put putting in at least three hard-boiled eggs for every five pounds of potato. If you’re buying it from the grocery store, always go to the deli case, steer clear of the factory-packaged stuff, and get the most yellow option you find. The best deli case potato salads for egg content usually have descriptors like Deluxe, Supreme, or Deviled.


Choosing Creamy Coleslaw Vs Italian

Coleslaw is one of those seemingly simple staple potluck side dishes that is either great or it’s trash. Here again, your best chances for a great coleslaw that everyone else at the cookout is going to enjoy is to get it from the deli case.

Depending on where you live in the country, creamy coleslaw or Italian style with vinegar might rule the land. So, make sure you know how to read the crowd. Pay a little extra for the shredded stuff over the tiny bits. When in doubt, bring both creamy and Italian-style coleslaw to show off the diversity of your side dish palette.


Make the Most Out of Mock Crab Salad

Mock crab salad is sort of the threshold marking the gray area between traditional potluck sides and the exotic ones. Here again, it should come from the deli case, and since it’s usually made from pollock (fish) freshness counts!

Though what really elevates mock crab salad to being a great potluck side dish that will wow people at the cookout is what you pair it with. You want things like robust whole wheat crackers, rich butter townhouse crackers, or even something exotic like sweet Hawaiian rolls. These are vehicles that deliver the refreshingly rich mock crab salad with a little extra flare!


Pasta Salad Is a Great Blank Canvas

On its own pasta salad from a deli case of a prepackaged tub is just slightly one step above a bag of plain potato chips. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to have a tub of plain pasta salad for the cookout traditionalists, or that picky person who just wants some creamy carbs.

Though where you really get a chance to wow the crowd and create a potluck side dish conversation starter is when you make your own. This is where you get the chance to show off your culinary creativity, by doing things like changing up the type of pasta and adding interesting ingredients that both challenge people’s pallets yet still keep them in their comfort zone.

Alternative Pastas for Pasta Salad

Cavatappi, Radia tori, Farfalle, Penne, Rigatoni

Alternative Sauces for Pasta Salad

Lemon Pepper, Pesto, Spicy Tomato, Vinegar Barbecue

Alternative Meats for Pasta Salad

Grilled Chicken, Seared Beef, Pepperoni, Cured Salami, Pulled Pork

Additional Vegetables

Broccoli Florets, Pearl Onions, Shishito Peppers, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Shaved Brussel Sprouts, Kalamata Olives, Creamed Spinach

Of course, these alternatives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things you can add or substitute to elevate pasta salad for an amazing potluck cookout side dish.


Exotic Side Dishes for a Potluck Cookout

Now that we’ve covered the classical side dishes to bring to a potluck cookout, we can venture forth into the realm of more exotic options. These are the sort of things that you usually can’t find in a deli case. Sometimes you have to wait to make sure you can find the right seasonal ingredients.


Sauteed Shishito Peppers

are originally from Japan. A lot of times you have to grow them yourself, but you can sometimes find them at a CSA or farmer’s market in late summer. A little olive oil, some shaved garlic, a dash of sea salt, and 5 minutes on the grill, to be served whole. They have no heat, but tons of bold pepper flavor. A sure crowd-pleaser and conversation starter.


Mexican Corn Salad

This is a Latin American street food and a side dish. Yes, you can find cheap knock-off versions of it at some restaurants and southwestern grocery stores. Though it’s better if you make it yourself.

Try to source two different types of corn on the cob, one super sweet and one traditional. Shave them off the cob and then add your own creative additions to make something truly unique. Just be wise and source authentic Mexican cheeses to tap into the vein of authenticity.


Fruit Kabobs

When it comes to fruit kabobs, you have to choose between fresh, cold fruits as a dessert or palate cleanser or grilled fruit kabobs that flirt with sweet-savory. If you’re going to go with grilled fruit kabobs, then make sure you are also offering up some sort of tangy sauce that brings out the caramelized flavors of the seared natural sugars.


Best Fruits for Grilled Kabobs

  • Peaches
  • Pineapple
  • Japanese Plums
  • Nectarines
  • Pears


Zucchini Fritters

Zucchini is one of those vegetables you can find in abundance during the midsummer peak grilling season. If you’ve got a few extra in your garden, and/or you can find them going cheap at the farmer’s market, they can be quickly transformed into a wide range of potluck cookout side dishes.

Though one of the best, and most portable options is to make them into zucchini fritters. You can make them grill side, air fry them, or even bake them in a convection oven. They’re easy to reheat, or you can serve them at the grill side.


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