Sides are where you can get the most creative with dinner. That’s probably why they’re the best part of the meal. They can be dressed up or down depending on the mood and motivation and can easily be tweaked to fit any diet or round out any main dish. My favorite way to play with them, though, is to make them healthier. Boosting the wholesome factor of your sides is the easiest way to make your entire meal healthier.
1. Choose high-protein, fewer carb sides.
While so many classic side dishes are carb-heavy, I find I always leave the dinner table feeling my best when I fill my plate with protein-heavy sides instead. Even if something protein-rich like chicken or salmon is at the center of the plate, rounding it out with something that’s more protein than carb will ensure you won’t feel weighed down after eating and want to head straight for the couch.
Plant-based proteins are the way to go. Sides that are bean or lentil based — like a scoop of hummus with fresh chopped veggies — are a great place to begin.
2. Make things easy on yourself.
Perhaps most importantly, cooking and serving up healthy sides shouldn’t be hard. The easier you make things on yourself, the more likely you are to prepare healthier side dishes more often. Sometimes, for me, it’s a big bowl of arugula tossed with lemon juice and olive oil. Other times it’s sweet potatoes I’ve tossed in the oven to bake while I go about other things. Keep your kitchen stocked with go-to shortcuts such as pre-cut veggies, dressings and marinades, and healthy sides.
One of my favorite time saving side dishes is RightRice Medley because all the prep work is done for you, so everything you need for a delicious and nutritious side dish is in the bag – and is ready in just 12 minutes! This modern twist on classic rice pilaf is a versatile side that’s packed with protein and fiber. That’s because the “rice” in the bag isn’t plain old white rice. Instead, it’s made from a unique blend of lentils, chickpeas, peas, and rice, so it delivers double the protein, five times the fiber, and almost 30% less net carbs than white rice. The rice is blended with gluten-free ancient grains like quinoa and sorghum, plus even more veggies to delivers flavorful, plant-based protein- and fiber-packed options like Fried Rice, full of flavorful Asian spices; Harvest Pilaf with sweet garden carrots and crunchy pumpkin seeds; or bold flavored New Orleans style Cajun Spice.
3. Squeeze in an extra serving (or two) of veggies.
We’re all trying to fit more vegetables in our diet and sides provide a golden opportunity to achieve this goal. Roasted vegetables and salads make a recurring role on the side of my plate because they’re both easy and taste good but when I want to sneak a bit more veggies in, I reach for plant-based foods that can easily stand in for the starchier classic. Love gnocchi? Trader Joe’s has cauliflower gnocchi and kale gnocchi that are extremely tasty and satisfying. This is an especially useful tip if you’re the parent of picky eaters, since a serving of broccoli may not have the most appeal but a serving of a flavorful, vegetable-based side may be more tempting to even the youngest diners at the table.
4. Add flavor with spices and sauces.
The secret to making anything the best part of the meal is to make it the most flavorful. So, by jazzing up healthy sides like vegetables and whole grains with spices like chili or curry powder and aromatics like garlic and onion, you’re automatically giving it star treatment. Sauces do a similar job. If you’re planning a side of roasted veggies or even a simple salad, go bold on your dressings. By incorporating unique flavors into your side, you’re guaranteeing the healthiest portion of your plate will be scooped up first.
5. Be smart about grains.
Whole grains are an important part of a well-balanced diet but not all whole grains are created equally. So, when choosing which ones to spoon onto your plate, be sure you’re selecting the healthiest whole grains for you and your family. Farro and barley are full of good fiber and nutrients, but they also contain gluten, so if gluten is a concern, be sure to choose gluten-free whole grains. Made with quinoa and sorghum, RightRice Medley is one of our favorite gluten-free favorites for a quick and convenient weeknight option.