Meal Planning 101: How I Plan our Side Dishes

posted by Andrea | 11/9/2018

Over the years, I’ve written countless posts about meal planning — mainly because you all keep asking for more!

Most recently, I shared a detailed look at our weekly meal plan (including breakfasts and lunches) and I always include our weekly meal plan at the end of ALL of my Peek Into Our Week posts.

These posts DO mention the various side dishes we eat with our meals, but I’ve never really gone into much detail about how I plan our side dishes, why I prepare certain side dishes for certain meals, or how I go about prepping food for side dishes.

I’ve gotten a huge number of questions regarding side dishes and I felt it was finally time to devote one full post to the topic… so that’s what we’re focusing on today!

How I Plan My Side Dishes:

Although this post is fairly long and detailed, I promise the process of choosing side dishes is VERY simple for me. I’ve been doing it for years, and we eat a lot of the same side dishes week after week, so I hardly use any brain power in this decision-making process!

For breakfast, we have fresh fruit, sausage or bacon, and scrambled eggs with almost every single meal.

For lunch, we have fresh fruit, raw veggies, pickles, sliced or cubed cheese, and some sort of crackers, pretzels, or chips with almost every single meals.

For dinner, we have some type of potato or starch, applesauce, fresh fruit, and 2-3 types of veggies with every meal.

DONE — that’s it! 

I don’t really have to “plan” much of this anymore as I’ve been doing it so long I just know what we need to have in the house, what I need to buy at the store, and what I can stock up on when on sale.

That said, I DO jot down my dinner side dish ideas next to my meal plan in my planner. Since we eat the same things for breakfast and lunch almost every day, I don’t write those down.

The tricky part (especially if you’re not in the habit) is having these side dishes READY TO GO when it’s time to eat.

I explain more  of how I do this below — it’s honestly amazing how much time I save by keeping a variety of our family’s favorite side dish foods ready to go in the pantry, fridge, and freezer!

Side-Dish Foods I (almost always) Keep In the Freezer:

The bulk of our freezer space is taken up by meats (pre-cooked and raw), baked goods, and full meals. However, there are also a handful of side dish foods we store in the freezer as well.

Frozen bread products — we have packages of store-bought garlic bread, and I also keep several loaves of frozen bread dough on hand. I can defrost a loaf and turn it into bread, rolls, breadsticks, pizza crust, Stromboli, etc. With different seasonings, it can work with almost any meal.

Frozen fruit — I buy bags of frozen fruit when we run low, but I also use this as a way to salvage any fruit that might be a little too ripe to enjoy fresh, so we rarely ever waste fruit. I can make a smoothie or yogurt parfait for breakfast in just a few minutes.

Frozen veggies — our family doesn’t care for many frozen vegetables, but we do use frozen broccoli, corn, and peas in various casseroles, soups, and salads. If you know what frozen veggies your family will eat, keep a few bags in the freezer as quick side dishes (the microwavable steam bags are super handy to have!)

Sausage patties — our kids eat sausage like crazy… almost every day for breakfast. I cook up several pounds of sausage patties at one time and freeze them for later. Then I can just microwave them for 30 seconds or fry them in a skillet until they are hot again. Recently, I found pre-cooked sausage patties in 18 count packages at Aldi. I’ve been buying those instead of making my own and the kids are huge fans. They are VERY tasty!

Pre-cooked rice — I often make a big batch of rice and and freeze it in 2-cup portions for later meals. I can then quickly defrost this to add into casseroles or to serve as a side dish. Our kids love rice, so having it ready-to-go has helped speed up my dinner prep a lot.

Hashbrown potatoes — we LOVE our cheesy potatoes so I always keep a couple bags of frozen hashbrowns in the freezer for a super quick side dish. This is a favorite side dish to bring to potlucks and parties as well.

French Fries — I almost always make our favorite baked herbed potato wedges with burgers, but if I’m in a pinch and short on time, it’s nice to always have a bag of frozen french fries in the freezer for a super quick side dish.

 

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Side Dish Foods I (almost always) Keep In The Fridge:

This is the trickiest part for me — because the items in the fridge are perishable, so it’s always a “game” of trying to keep these foods readily available, but also use them up before they get over-ripe or go bad. I don’t have a perfect system, but I have gotten a lot better at this over the years.

Sometimes, we just end up eating weird combinations of foods in order to finish off various side dishes that need to be eating ASAP — as long as our bellies are full, right!!

Cut Fresh fruit — I feel confident in saying we ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS have at least 3 types of fresh fruit washed and ready to at all times — strawberries, grapes, and pineapple almost all the time, with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, muskmelon, kiwi, and pomegranate seeds as regular additions. I wash, chop, slice, prepare, etc. this fruit in small batches (usually every other day) and we enjoy fresh fruit with almost every single meal.

Whole fresh fruit — we always have have bananas and apples available for snacks or to slice up as part of our meal. We often have mandarin oranges as well.

Raw cut veggies — For the last 2 years, I’ve kept a large tray of pre-washed, pre-sliced raw veggies in the fridge and we usually let the kids pick as many veggies as they want to go with their meal. We keep a big tub of hummus and a bottle of Ranch dressing available for dipping our veggies.

Roasted veggies — Roasted veggies have been my personal go-to side dish for the past year or so. I roast up 2-3 sheet pans of veggies 2 times every week and we enjoy them with most of our dinners (and I eat them for breakfast every day). I just reheat them in a pan on the stove (or even just pop them in the microwave when I’m short on time). The flavor and texture is great and everyone can choose the veggies they like most.

Spinach and lettuce — Dave and I enjoy salads with many meals so we always have a couple containers of pre-washed lettuce and spinach in the fridge. We haven’t gotten our kids to acquire a taste for salad yet, but we’ll keep working on it!

Sliced and cubed cheeses — cheese is our go-to side dish for most lunches. Since our kids really don’t love sandwiches, they often just have some type of meat, some type of crackers, roll, or bread, and some type of cheese (yes, I know this is odd, but it works for now). I always keep 2-3 varieties of cheese in the fridge, and I slice or cube it every few days so it’s always ready to go.

Pickles — oh my lands… our kids LOVE dill pickles! I can my own refrigerator dill pickles in the summer and those last us through the winter. Then I buy store-bought pickles in the spring to get us through until our garden cucumbers are ripe enough again.

Salsa and guacamole — I don’t know if this can be considered a side dish, but we eat salsa and guacamole with A LOT of different foods. We put it on eggs, we eat it with Mexican dishes, we put it on salads, we use it as dip for chips and quesadillas… and we always have at least 2 different types of salsa (some store bought, some homemade) and guacamole in the fridge.

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Side Dish Foods I (almost always) Keep In the Pantry:

We have LOTS of food in our pantry (we actually have 2 pantries — one in the kitchen and one in the basement) so the list below is not an exhaustive list of everything in our pantry. It IS, however, a list of the side-dish-type foods we keep in the pantry almost all the time — things I can put together in just a few minutes and go with many different types of meals.

Applesauce — our ever-present side dish for most of our dinners! I can roughly 50 quarts every year and we go through about one quart a week! I also make this amazing chunky cinnamon applesauce for special occasions. Of course, after the applesauce jars are open, they go in the fridge — but it’s something we store in our pantry, so I’m including it in this list.

Canned fruit — our family definitely prefers fresh fruit over canned, but we do enjoy canned mandarin oranges and pineapple, so they are our standbys if we are low on fresh fruit.

Canned tomatoes, beans, and corn –– we really do not enjoy canned veggies all that much… but I do use canned tomatoes and beans (black, pinto, kidney, refried, etc) for various casseroles, soups, and side dishes. We also DO like canned corn as a super quick side dish if we’re low on fresh veggies.

Dried fruit and nuts — these are easy things to pack in lunches and our kids like them.

Chips, crackers, veggie straws, popcorn — not the healthiest option, but the kids can often chose one of these items as a side dish for lunch.

Rice and quinoa — I use our rice cooker ALL the time to effortlessly cook various type of rice and quinoa for different meals. I love that I can just turn it on at any point in the day and let it “keep warm” until we’re ready to eat. I’ve never burned or ruined a batch yet (knock on wood)!

Tortillas — our kids don’t love sandwiches but they WILL eat wraps — any type of meat and cheese on a tortilla (usually warmed to melt the cheese). They also love cheese + bean quesadillas or pizza quesadillas. Almost any time I make anything Mexican, I always throw a few bean and cheese quesadillas in the cast iron skillet as quick and easy side dishes the whole family really enjoys.

Mac and cheese — we’ve hardly eaten any pasta the last 6-8 months as we’ve been eating mostly zoodles and spaghetti squash, but I always keep a couple boxes of mac and cheese in the pantry as a 10-minute side dish for the kids. They can eat a full box between the 4 of them (as as side dish) so it’s the perfect amount right now!

Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes — we eat potatoes several times a week for breakfast and dinner — baked, mashed, boiled, fried, wedges, hash browns, and more. Almost every time I roast vegetables, I throw 3- 5 potatoes and/or sweet potatoes in the oven, so we always have baked potatoes available as quick and easy side dishes. I then use those baked potatoes to make fried potatoes for breakfast or as an easy side dish for almost any type of meat. The whole family usually loves whatever way I serve potatoes!

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Clearly… our family LOVES side dishes!

I honestly think this is one of the reasons Dave and I don’t enjoy going OUT to eat very often — we want more then one dinky side dish and a tiny side salad with our meal. We want 5 or 6 side dishes… and so do our kids!

Side dishes make it possible for our family to enjoy a variety of different foods at every meal, they encourage our kids to try new foods while still being able to fill up on the foods they like more, and they allow for lots of yummy lunch leftovers the next day!

If you’re not used to making so many side dishes, it might feel somewhat overwhelming to make multiple different foods for the same meal — but as I mentioned above, we really do keep it very simple most of the time. As long as we have fresh fruits and veggies cut up and ready to go, some applesauce, and maybe a roll or slice of bread, we can make a full meal out of almost any main dish!

What are your favorite side dish foods?

Check out my virtual recipe box for more yummy side dish recipes!

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23 comments

  1. Debbie

    11/13/2018

    Side dishes are definitely not part of the Filipino culture. It’s mostly main dish and rice. If you attend a Filipino party, you’ll see 20 different main dishes and rice, and maybe 10 different desserts. The main dish can have vegetables cooked with it or not, depending on the dish. As I started growing up as an adult living in the States I was introduced to salads and side dish. My mom would make the traditional Thanksgiving meal with all the side dish. I’m still not used to have 3-4 side dishes in my meals, but I have to have vegetables as a side dish. My husband wouldn’t add a side dish with his meal unless it’s plated for him. I need to learn to eat more raw veggies. Your roasted veggie recipes are my go to side dish now.

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  2. Margaret

    11/10/2018

    Lots of good ideas here.
    A suggestion re the canned beans: it’s VERY easy to cook up dry beans and then freeze them in the quantities you will use. I soak them overnight, rinse, & pop into the crockpot while I sleep. By the time I wake up they’re done, and I just drain them and freeze in canning jars. It’s much cheaper than canned (even if I buy organic dry beans), zero sodium since canned beans have a lot, it’s only about 5 minutes of hands-on time, and it’s just as convenient. I eat beans almost every day in some form–I’m vegetarian–so I’ve learned to make it swift and painless.
    I agree with everything you’ve ever said about the value of food prep;).

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    Andrea Reply:

    Hi Margaret!
    I just wanted to circle back and let you know I made my own black beans in the slow cooker yesterday (after rinsing them overnight).
    Thanks for the motivation — I’ve had a back in the pantry for a while but never got around to making them since I always just grabbed a can instead!

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  3. Ana

    11/09/2018

    I agree with you, I’m Spanish and a delicious virgin extra olive oil with salt and vinegar is the best. Everybody around here love the most simple green salad with this. Sometimes I add to my green salad nuts, blue cheese bites and a tablespoon of honey, mix in a jar with the oil, vinegar and a pinch of salt and we have an incredible salad. My children love it!

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    Andrea Reply:

    ok… I’ll give it a try for the kiddos!!

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  4. Liane

    11/09/2018

    Amazing and inspirational (as usual)!

    I’ve decided to cut way back on food budget which in very pricey California was getting ginormous. So the first round of cuts was convenience foods. Anything I could do as a stay at home wife with an entire day on my hands I decided to do myself. Since it’s only two of us and no picky kids around it was pretty easy actually. We’ve leaned toward a paleo clean eating lifestyle for several years. And it’s expensive. Part of the cost is $.12 gas tax added to our expensive reformulated gas. If you want to live here the cost is high. It’s that or leave the state.

    So here’s how I fixed our side dish issue because I wanted to still have the variety. To save on veggies I only buy them loose from bins, like whole russets instead of premade mashed — plus the packages have tons of additives. And rather than those peeler carrots, I switched to bunches of grown up carrots. I’ve been roasting them with beets of various colors and trays of sliced bells and squash when in season. The hardest thing is finding locally grown so we tend to repeat. A lot. I cut out all foreign grown anything like bananas and avocados and asparagus. The last two I can find in season. It has to add to the price to get asparagus from Peru. I’ll find asparagus in season and roast a double batch, we’ll eat some for dinner, then save the rest to make quiches or frittatas or to put on a salad. By eliminating the processing and the transport costs and by being willing to eat local and seasonal, I’ve freed enough cash to keep eating mostly organic.

    Also bagged lettuce vs whole bunches is way cheaper. Buying normal tomatoes and cubing them is cheaper than Mexican cherry tomatoes. That way we can have a salad every night and not go broke. I’ve eliminated pricy salad dressings and bought some quality Penzeys seasoning mixes, and buy extra virgin olive oil and nice quality vinegars. It may not save much but at least I’m not eating objectionable soy or cottonseed or canola oil. And I make my own mayo.

    Right now apples are coming in droves so they are showing up at nearly every meal — sliced, sautéed with onion and piled on pork chops, or chopped into muffins and pancakes and I just baked a pan of them full of raisins and walnuts and cinnamon (cored first) — super good. Pears too but kids seem to dislike them.

    Another thing I discovered was that zoodles are showing up in stores in bags at premium prices and so are cauliflower stem shreds in frozen bags. I figured if they can freeze zucchini spirals so can I so I did an enormous batch and froze them loosely on cookie sheet before putting in food saver bags. As for the cauliflower someone said the store stuff is what’s left after cutting off the florets. Yuck. Not that the stem is any less nutritious but they get top dollar. I made a ton of cauliflower rice and bagged it too, in food saver bags.

    And another brainstorm. I made a ton of meatballs in the smaller hors d’ouvres size — they double as appetizers or something to put on pizza or make sandwiches or even add to soup. They aren’t a side dish exactly but they are in my frozen “pantry”.

    Here’s how I shaved nearly $100 a month off budget other than buying local and in season:

    Shredding my own cheese and freezing it. Benefit of that is no antibiotic and anticaking agent.
    Using baguettes sliced real thin instead of crackers. Usually they are oil and sugar free.
    Grinding the trimmings of pork chops to make “sausage” to add to ground beef for meatloaf.
    (I buy loin roast, cut into loin chops, cheaper that way, use trimmings for other uses)
    Make my own rotisserie chicken except I roast it. Cool, cut, shred or slice and freeze.
    Baking like grandma did — no mixes, just have ingredients on hand. Within reason. I do buy premade chocolate chips occasionally but you can buy a bar of semi sweet chocolate, freeze it and shatter with a hammer. Tastes the same and melts the same.

    What we stopped eating completely are commercially prepared foods that contain seed oils, msg, gmo ingredients, sweetened cereal, yogurt and baked goods. This stuff did not exist when my grandma cooked. I’m learning to cook like a grandma now, actually my grandma, except for the jell-o salad with grapes and cottage cheese in it.

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    Andrea Reply:

    wow — this is awesome. Thanks so much for the detailed comment and sharing everything that’s working for you right now! That’s a lot of savings!

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  5. Sue

    11/09/2018

    I got my youngest to eat salads by giving her carrot sticks in a bowl with just 1 or 2 pieces of lettuce(romaine) and some ranch dressing to dip her carfos and lettuce in. I gradually added .ore letguce a piece or two at a time. After a couple of months, it was more lettuce and less carrot sticks. Then added a few croutons and shredded cheese. Now she loves salad.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, our kids will do raw veggies and ranch pretty well — it’s the lettuce part they don’t love yet. Maybe you’re right, we should just give them pieces of lettuce to dip into the ranch versus plating it like a salad. Thanks!

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  6. Linda B.

    11/09/2018

    In your photo of the prepped raw veggies what is the vegetable in the lower left corner? Carrot in some kind of liquid?

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    Andrea Reply:

    ah yes! I always slice our carrots (even baby carrots) smaller because the kids like them better and eat them more willingly that way. And once I slice them, they tend to dry out — so I keep water in the container and change the water every day. It works well.

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  7. Debby

    11/09/2018

    Love this post! It is full of great ideas. Personally if I have a lot of side dishes to choose from, I eat very little meat or none at all.

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    Andrea Reply:

    ME TOO! I sometimes finish my plate and realize I only had a teeny, tiny bit of meat. Not that I’m against meat in any way, but it’s amazing how much flavor the side dishes have — we can really stretch our meat this way!

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  8. Sarah C

    11/09/2018

    I love your meal planning posts! This might be one of your posts that I’m finding the most helpful! I think if I had more side dishes it would stretch our meals more and also help my pickier eaters.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes definitely! We can get by with very little meat as we have SO many other things to eat. And (as I mentioned in the post) this is one reason we don’t love going out to eat all that much — we’re used to too many options!

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  9. Christine

    11/09/2018

    I think you guys would love Golden Corral. 🙂

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    Andrea Reply:

    We LOVE Golden Corral — although we’ve only been there a couple of times in our lives. They have on in Florida, very close to where we’ve vacationed with my parents a few times. We always visit there once on our trip and leave feeling disgustingly full!
    Buffets were always my favorite growing up to — I just loved to try a little bit of everything (especially the dessert buffet!)

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  10. Cathy

    11/09/2018

    Inspired to keep more sides on hand and ready to go! I work outside the home full time and this would save me time and get food on the table more quickly.

    Salads–my teen still loves them. I got her started early by doing what I called an extreme chopped salad. Cut up the lettuce very small and make the salad mostly toppings. I would also cut up any toppings small or shred them especially if they were veggies that she wasn’t a huge fan of. if they like cheese add a lot of cheese. she liked ranch dressing at the time so I would put that on and then toss it all together so everything was coated with ranch dressing.Then over time start changing the ratio of salad 2 toppings. I would also give her a spoon to eat a salad.

    Love the post!

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    Andrea Reply:

    having the fruits and veggies prepped ahead of time has been key for me since having children. I don’t necessarily have time to wash, chop, etc. them all right before we eat — when everyone is hungry and crabby and wants food NOW.
    Sometimes, I’ll just let them snack on raw veggies straight from the container while they are waiting for me to plate up their dinners. I figure it’s something healthy for them to fill up on, they stay out of my hair while I’m finishing dinner, and they aren’t whining! Win, win, win!
    As for your salad trick — I love it! We’ve tried doing this with our kids but they get hung up on the dressing (they don’t like the taste of the dressings — but they don’t like plane salad either). I wish we could get them to eat salads — we will keep trying!

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    Monica Reply:

    Have you tried a simple dressing of just salt, vinegar and olive oil? It’s definitely better then having plain salad but it doesn’t have much of a flavour, either. Besides, it’s a lot healthier than store bought dressings. In Portugal, where I’m from, this is our staple in terms of salad dressings.

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    Andrea Reply:

    no — not for the kids. But I often do dressings like this for myself. Maybe I’ll have to give it a try for them too. Sometimes I underestimate kids’ tastebuds!

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  11. Sam

    11/09/2018

    When I started reading your blog one of the first big differences I noticed was how many side dishes you serve with your meals. At my house it is not uncommon to not have any side dish (one bowl of pasta or casserole), or only one side dish with meat. I’ve been trying to incorporate more side dishes as a way to stretch those expensive meats a bit further for meals and to eat more veggies! Thanks for breaking it down!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yeah, we have a BUNCH of sides with every meal. It’s to the point now where our kids will ask “where’s the rest of the food” when we go places and they only have meat, and potatoes, or pasta and bread. We usually try to prepare the kids ahead of time and bring fruit and veggies to supplement if necessary!

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