While we share many recipes that are complete meals on their own, such as one-pot and sheet-pan dinners, other times you are left to your own devices in coming up with side dishes to round out main courses.
When time allows, you can make more elaborate sides to impress your fellow diners, but more often, you just need a filling, well-rounded meal to make it through the day. So whenever you’re in search of a few simple side ideas, consult this list to help you figure out how to get dinner on the table.
Throwing stuff on a sheet pan is my go-to whenever I want something easy and delicious. All you need is your vegetable(s) of choice, oil, salt and pepper, but you could jazz it up by adding a couple cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of fresh hard herbs or whatever spices and seasonings you enjoy most. Toss everything together right on the sheet pan instead of a bowl first to save yourself from dirtying an extra dish before popping it into the oven. You can roast vegetables anywhere from 350 to 450 degrees depending on their density, how quickly you want them to cook and whether you want them to get nicely browned or maybe even a little charred (my personal preference). One note of caution when it comes to mixing and matching different produce: Choose ingredients that will cook at similar rates, or cut them into smaller pieces so that they do.
I remember learning the acronym KISS (for “keep it simple, stupid”) as a child, and I’m here to remind you that simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean boring. Pasta tossed with butter or olive oil, and maybe even a little grated Parmesan or Pecorino if you’re in the mood, would be a great complement to mushroom walnut “meatballs” or chicken cutlets with artichokes and lemon-thyme sauce. And it doesn’t stop there – venture out from Italian pasta to include other types of noodles, like rice or soba noodles with a drizzle of sesame oil or chili crisp, to round out a meal.
Sautéed tender greens
One quick and easy weeknight meal I like to keep in my back pocket is a seared steak (or pork chop or boneless, skinless chicken breast or slab of tofu) with some spinach quickly sautéed in the same pan. It all comes together in about 15 minutes, largely thanks to the spinach being done in the time it takes for the protein to rest, if not sooner, making it a great side dish for just about any meal. I like to season it with salt, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, and then hit it with some acid, such as lemon juice or sherry vinegar, to perk it up. If you’re not a big fan of spinach or simply want to switch it up from time to time, use any other tender green of your choosing, such as Swiss chard or radish greens.
Rice (and other grains)
Some people don’t consider a meal to be complete without a bowl of rice on the table, but others find making a pot of rice at home beyond their culinary prowess. If you find yourself in the latter camp and have yet to improve upon your rice cooking skills (or have yet to invest in a rice cooker), then there are plenty of boxes and pouches of rice and other grains on the market today that eliminate much, if not all, of the guesswork.
In my book, all you really need for a side salad is some lettuce – maybe with a couple cherry tomatoes and some sliced cucumber thrown in – and your favorite dressing. While you can and should make your own salad dressing, I’m here to say that there’s no shame in using the bottled stuff when you simply don’t feel like putting in any more effort than you have to. And, to that end, bagged salad mixes are certainly convenient when you want a variety of ingredients without having to purchase each component individually.
Yes, many have realized (especially in the past year) that they can bake pretty good bread at home. While I admire the gumption of home bread bakers to do just that, no, I am obviously not telling you to bake a boule as an easy or quick way to fill out your meal. Instead, lean on the experts, be it the artisanal bakery down the street or the companies that have perfected lining shelves with loaves upon loaves – and flat breads such as naan, pita and tortillas, too – of carb-filled deliciousness. (And don’t forget the biscuits, dinner rolls and Texas toast you can find in the refrigerated and frozen sections.) All you need is a generous schmear of butter or your favorite olive oil for dipping, and you’re all set.
For those unfamiliar, couscous has a delightful nuttiness with a hint of sweetness. Anything just labeled “couscous” in the United States is the Moroccan variety, which is much smaller than the pearl or Israeli kind you might also see. These tiny balls made from semolina are traditionally steamed for about 30 minutes, but the product found in your local grocery store is the instant or quick-cooking variety, meaning you just need to cover it with boiling water, let it sit for a few minutes and then it’s ready to eat. A simple dressing of oil, lemon, salt and pepper goes a long way, or you can add in some fresh herbs and feta cheese.