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