The key to a superior summer side dish: don't overcomplicate it.

By Briana Riddock and Briana Riddock
Updated August 23, 2017
Credit: Getty Images/Hero Images Inc.

We all know the beginning of September can get a little hectic (kids head back to school/activities, young adults start college, you’re shuffling them through all of it), but that’s all the more reason to fire up the grill for Labor Day— as a tasty ode to summer, and the wonderful produce and memories it has provided.

Now, we recognize you’ve probably already got a game plan for your entree, so let’s talk about sides. Because a great cookout side dish should be both a crowd-pleaser and unfussy to prep, it’s best to keep your recipe ambitions simple. Below are a handful of prime examples of dishes that really hit this mark. And to make sure there’s something for everyone, we’ve included dishes that are super make-ahead friendly, as well as a handful that come together seamlessly at the last minute (shout-out to the procrastinators). Just remember, simplicity is key to cooking the last dishes of the summer, when everything else in life starts to get a bit more chaotic.

Here are sides to make ahead of time:

Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Jan Gautro, Laura Martin

The good thing about mac and cheese is that it’s a guaranteed hit at any function you bring it to. You can cook and combine the noodles with the cheese sauce and keep it in the refrigerator until to day of. Just pop the dish into the oven an hour before, and arrive to the party with a bubbling pan of warm, gooey goodness.

Summer Strawberry Panzanella

Credit: Sara Tane

Sara Tane

This toasty bread salad is literally summer on a plate. Go ahead and toast the bread and store it plastic baggies a day or two before. Prep your produce by cutting the fruits and veggies up and refrigerating until ready to use. When you’re ready, bring the bread salad to life in minutes with your toasted bread, chopped produce, and a few splashes of vinegar and oil.

Cola Baked Beans

Adding cola to the brown sugar and molasses is the secret to the complex sweetness of these bacon-accented beans.

Cut the corner of soaking dried beans and opt for a few cans of beans to make this simple and savory-sweet side dish, enriched with cola and molasses for a depth of flavor. The addition of bacon gives these beans a great hit of saltiness and fat. To prep this dish ahead, assemble all of the ingredients ahead of time and simply bake when you are ready to serve.

Herb and Crumb Deviled Eggs

Credit: Randy Mayor; Styling: Lindsey Lower

Deviled eggs are always a crowd favorite, and divvying up the prep work keeps them from being a pain. You can shell the eggs (pro tip: steam the eggs instead of boiling, and the shells come off much easier), scoop out the yolks, and whip up the filling the night before. And all that’s left to do is fill your eggs and garnish the next day. This take on the classic deviled egg is packed with herbs and topped with a buttery Panko crumble.

Here are sides to make at the last minute:

Shrimp and Marinated Peach Salad with Blue Cheese and Caramelized Shallot Vinaigrette

Credit: Photographer and Prop stylist: Gina DeSimone; Food Stylist: Briana Riddock

Grab your late summer peaches and assemble this salad in minutes before you leave the house. The best part of this salad is that there’s no cooking necessary. Just pick up a bag of pre-cooked shrimp and let the Old Bay Seasoning bring the flavor.

Nashville Hot Chicken Dip

Nashville Hot Chicken Dip image
| Credit: Hector Manuel Sanchez, Prop Styling: Mary Clayton Carl; Food Styling: Katelyn Hardwick

Nashville Hot Chicken Dip image Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez, Prop Styling: Mary Clayton Carl; Food Styling: Katelyn Hardwick

Tote a big bag of tortilla chips and all the ingredients for this dip straight to the party and prepare it on site. Cream cheese serves as the base of this rich appetizer, while hot sauce delivers a spicy kick. Just warm all your ingredients together for a practically instant dip that’s delicious served with just about any dippable vegetable, chip, or cracker.

Easy Tomato Salad with Basil Chimichurri and Ricotta

Credit: Sara Tane

Sara Tane

Plump, juicy, and semi-sweet heirloom tomatoes are the highlight of this salad. Not only is it stunning to look at with the various reds and yellows of the tomatoes, it couldn’t be easier to assemble. The bright green, flavor-packed chimichurri sauce requires nothing more than a minute with your blender.

Charred Shishito Peppers

Credit: Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine

Simply char the shishito peppers in a scorching-hot cast iron skillet for an addictive (but healthy) snack, perfect for nibbling on with throughout the day and night. Don’t forget the squeeze of the lemon juice and sprinkle of the coarse sea salt at the end—these finishing touches are essential for balancing out the toasty char flavor.