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Tips to Upgrade Your Dinner Side Dishes

About a week ago, my friend and former co-worker, Riley, sent me an audio message (because audio messages > text messages) asking for some side dish recommendations for her upcoming meal plan. She felt like all her go-to ideas were overused and she wanted to try something new to accompany her mains. I replied with a few of my favorite side dish recipes from my Plan to Eat account (you can find those below) and it started a longer conversation about side dishes that I want to share. 

What I realized is that Riley and I have two different problems when it comes to planning side dishes. Riley told me she tends to gravitate toward the same foods every week when she plans and has a hard time divorcing side dishes from their “traditional” mains, like having a salad with pasta. This leads her to get stuck in a rut with the same recipes on repeat. 

An alternate problem with side dishes, which I often encounter, is I forget to plan a side dish with a main. Right now, I have Honey Hot Chicken planned for dinner on Tuesday but no side dish to complete the meal. Many of the recipes I cook don’t require a side dish, like rice bowls or soup. So when I plan short ribs, meatloaf, or smoked chicken, I forget to account for and plan a side dish to complete the meal. 

Now to some recipes and tips for resolving either scenario, in case you struggle with recipe variety, like Riley, or forgetful planning, like me.

overhead shot of a table filled with food for a dinner feast

Tips to add side dish variety:

  1. Find new ways to cook the same veggies you already make – sauté instead of roast, or grill instead of steam. If you have an instant pot or air fryer, look up how to prepare a favorite vegetable with those appliances. 
  2. Ask your friends and family for suggestions on what side dishes they like and you might discover something new. 
  3. Take note of what side dishes you like when you eat out and try to reproduce them at home! 
  4. A great tip from a guest on the Plan to Eat Podcast – make a sauce to add to your veggies. If your typical side dish is a cooked and seasoned veggie, you can elevate the flavors with a yummy sauce. 
  5. Remember to check in with your family and see if they’re actually tired of the side dishes you’re planning. You might be the only one who thinks your meals need an update. 

Here are some of my favorite side dish recipes you can add to an upcoming meal plan if you’re looking for something new:

overhead view of two people at a dinner table passing a plate of green beans

Ideas for an on-hand side dish when you forget to plan accordingly:

  • Rice and beans 
  • A garden salad (I know you have a package of spring mix in your fridge that needs to be used!) 
  • Couscous or quinoa
  • Sauteed zucchini and onions (I love to add Chinese Five Spice to my sauteed summer squash)
  • Roasted carrots
  • Baked potatoes
  • Cornbread (my current fave is this Jalapeño Cornbread)

All of this is a reminder that meal planning is individual and each person has their own style of planning ahead. You may look at my list of quick side dishes and think, “I don’t have any of those things on hand”. Or you may never get into ruts and need new recipe inspiration. This is why a tool like Plan to Eat is so powerful – you get to decide what you plan, when you plan it, and how it’s prepared. You can switch up your dinner side dishes as often or infrequently as you’d like because it’s all in your control. When you’re equipped with the right tools, you can fill in the gaps, add variety, and create meal plans that work for you and your family. 

I hope you found this helpful and have some new side dish ideas for your next meal plan!

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