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8 Mistakes You’re Probably Making with Your Cookout Side Dishes

Plus, lots of easy fixes to save the day.
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A classic summer barbecue is jam-packed with hot dogs and burgers fresh off the grill, juicy watermelon slices, and heaps of delectable side dishes. Unfortunately, every now and then those bowls of creamy coleslaw or hearty potato salad don’t turn out as well as expected, leaving a few sad side dishes languishing on the picnic table. But fret no more—we’ve pulled together the most common planning and cooking mistakes and what you can do to save your cookout. As a bonus, we’ve added some of our favorite, fool-proof recipes to accompany your grilled mains, so you’ll never go wrong again.

The Problem: You’ve Used Too Much Mayo

Pasta salads, potato salads, and other cold salads rely on mayonnaise for creaminess. But what happens when you misread a recipe, mistakenly think your salad looks too dry and add an extra spoonful, or try to eyeball measurements and end up with a bowl of mayonnaise

The Fix: Add extra crunch! Look to the rest of your ingredients or your pantry for something crunchy, like onions, raw or just slightly cooked green beans, celery, or pickles. While you can’t take out extra mayonnaise, adding crunchy bites will help re-balance your salad.

If you need some inspiration, try our Salt and Vinegar Potato Salad recipe that’s got just the right amount of mayonnaise with the perfect crunchy bite from extra chips on top.

The Problem: You’ve Added Too Much Salt

Salt can be one of those tricky things when it comes to summer side dishes. Salting the cooking water for pasta or potatoes, sprinkling salt in the dressing mixture, adding salty ingredients to the mix, and you can quickly overdo it.

The Fix: Never fear, science is here! For a quick and easy fix, add some acid. Lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and chopped tomatoes are great acidic options to help balance your over-salted side. If you’re still stuck in a salty disaster, try adding sweetness with a drizzle of honey, some chopped fresh or dried fruit, or even just a pinch of regular white sugar. Or consider adding something creamy, like avocado, sour cream, or ricotta, depending on the recipe. These rich foods will help coat your mouth and make the whole dish seem less salty. And remember, always taste your food as you’re cooking, so you can judge how much seasoning you really need.

Try our Summer Pasta Salad with Grilled Peaches and Corn for a salad that has plenty of sweetness, richness, sourness, and saltiness all wrapped up in one dish.

The Problem: Your Side Dish Tastes Bland

You spent time prepping for the big meal, added tons of ingredients to the bowl, and when you sneak a taste of your side dish, it tastes like… nothing!

The Fix: Before you admit defeat, add a few more ingredients to see if you can pump up the flavor. Acidic foods, like a squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle of vinegar, add brightness to dishes, basically transforming your food from blah grey to a world of color. Chopped pickles, tomatoes, or roasted red peppers can also help add a pop of freshness. If you’re still not finding flavor, adding a touch more salt can help everything taste more flavorful. Ingredients like olives, cheese, capers, or just a pinch of plain old salt are great options. Some chopped fresh herbs, like basil or oregano, are also flavorful additions, as are spicy ingredients, like crushed red pepper or hot sauce.

For a salad that delivers all kinds of flavor, try our colorful Spinach & Artichoke Tortellini Salad.

The Problem: Your Coleslaw Is Soggy

Crunchy, cooling, and refreshing coleslaw is a staple on summer spreads for a reason. It helps balance some of the heavier, meaty dishes with a zesty, creamy crunch. But what to do when your coleslaw is a soggy bowl of sadness?

The Fix: See if you can figure out what’s causing the soggy bite. Is your coleslaw watery from the cabbage (it can release water as it sits)? Drain off the water and give your coleslaw a toss. If you used too much dressing, stir in more crunchy veggies like more cabbage or carrots to help fix the vegetable-to-creamy dressing ratio. Is your dressing too thin? Add a little extra mayonnaise to help get that perfect balance of creamy and crunchy.

Our Honey Mustard Coleslaw is a surefire recipe that’ll keep you happy all summer long.

The Problem: Everything Feels Too Heavy

While everyone loves creamy salads and meaty mains, a summer cookout can quickly feel heavy if there’s nothing lighter on the menu. Guests may find themselves desperate for something to balance the rich bites.

The Fix: The best way to prevent this is to plan side dishes that can cut through the heaviness with some veggies or fruit. Grilled vegetables, fresh vinegar-based slaws, crisp green salads, or even a fruit salad are easy ways to add some freshness and lighten up your spread. Plan a variety of dishes to keep your guests going back for more.

This Spicy Tomato and Watermelon Salad comes with several fresh favorites like watermelon, tomatoes, and a quick spice-infused dressing.

The Problem: Your Dishes Are Too Complicated

If you love hosting, you might be planning to make a dish that is more of a project or trying to make everything yourself. That can seem doable in theory, but in practice, it will leave you overwhelmed, over budget, and unable to enjoy your friends’ company.

The Fix: Choose some simple recipes that are only a few ingredients or no cook, and ask your guests to contribute, too. Requesting they bring an appetizer, side dish, or dessert not only helps everyone feel involved but also frees up your time and energy for the party.

Our Bacon and Cheddar Loaded Potato Salad looks impressive, but only takes 10 minutes to throw together.

The Problem: Your Cold Sides Don’t Stay Cold

Accidentally warm sides are a quick way to put a damper on a party. Cool and crisp dishes will lose their texture and freshness, ultimately detracting from the overall meal. Plus, nobody wants to get a friend or family member sick from food not stored properly.

The Fix: First, plan side dishes that will taste good at room temperature. A hot summer day is not the time to test out recipes that should be served straight from the fridge. Next, make sure you do everything you can to keep cold food at the proper temperature. Consider putting food platters on ice when serving outside. As a general rule of thumb, food, hot or cold, shouldn’t be left out of the fridge for more than two hours. If it’s a particularly hot day, consider leaving the food indoors for serving or keeping the eating time to under an hour. And always keep food out of direct sunlight.

Our Grilled and Marinated Vegetables are packed with flavor and are delicious warm, room temperature, or chilled.

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