Build a Menu: 5 Tips for Matching Side Dishes with Main Dishes

I received several questions and comments during Dinner Week asking for discussion and help on pairing side dishes with main dishes. This left me scratching my head a bit, as I think it's hard to discuss this generally, without a specific menu in hand. I thought about the way that I assemble my own dinner party menus, though, and some patterns emerged. Here are a few very general thoughts on putting together a good dinner.

Like I said, I've seen quite a lot of comments about this this week, and I received this question from Lorena, who asks: Do you have any suggestions for complementary side dishes for main dishes? I feel like I have recipes for both but I don't know what goes together well.

Here are a few very basic questions and ideas for putting together a menu — this is just a place to start!

Have your main dish in mind? Good. Now:

  1. Think different.

    The most obvious way to choose a side dish is to look at your main dish (pasta, chicken, seared tofu) and choose something different. If you're making pasta, go for a simple vegetable. Making steak? Go for something light. If you're making stir-fry with rice, then it's probably not a good idea to also make a rice salad. If much of the meal is dark, with rich, roasted flavors (braised short ribs, French onion soup) balance it out with an acidic salad or vegetable. If it's very light, like a fresh salad with cheese and fruit, add a little weight with a hearty whole-grain bread or a cheesy gratin.

    This also applies to cooking method. If you are going to be roasting a side of beef for two hours, or using the stovetop to make a tricky fish dish, then do something different with your side dish. In the case of the stovetop fish dish, why not roast some baby onions in the oven, or make a cabbage slaw ahead of time?

  2. Think similar.

    On the other hand, it's nice to pick a theme and carry it through dinner. For instance, I often use lemon. So if I am making chicken with lemon, for example, I may add lemon juice to a salad dressing, or lemon zest to the bread I make for dinner.

    This also can apply to cooking method. You don't want to overcommit your oven by scheduling three dishes at once in there, or be juggling four pans on the stovetop. But sometimes you can make a dish do double-duty, as in this recipe for chicken thighs with fennel, where the vegetable roasts with the chicken. You don't need anything else for a complete meal, except perhaps some bread, rice, or pasta.

  3. Think seasonal.

    Maybe the simplest way to pick a side dish. Look at the produce in your CSA box or at the market, and pick up a handful of baby carrots, or beets, or fresh arugula. Roast the carrots while you prep some fish or a stovetop dinner omelet, or make a salad with the arugula while soup simmers.

  4. Think complete meal.

    The food groups offer a traditional way to put a meal together, of course, but they really are helpful. I like to have a meat, a starch, and a vegetable on my dinner table, especially when entertaining. When it's just me and my husband, sometimes I leave out the meat or the starch and have two vegetables — one cold, like a salad, and one hot — like roasted veggies or a sauté of fennel or Brussels sprouts.

    The point is, think of the major food groups (meat, starch, dairy, vegetables, fruit) and try to include no more than one dish from each group.

  5. When in doubt, make a simple green salad.

    In the end, though, I almost always have a simple green salad with dinner. It is the perfect accompaniment to almost any dish — pasta, soup, meat, even grilled vegetables or a cheese sandwich. Dress lightly with a sprinkling of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, and add a shaved flurry of Parmesan, if you want to get fancy. Don't forget a touch of salt and pepper.


I feel like these tips are extremely simple and obvious, but I think that it's hard to offer much more advice without looking at specific menus and dishes.

How do you decide on your own menus?

Pictured Above:
Roast Chicken - A main dish, and three complementary side dishes that would each be good with a roast chicken, depending on the season and your tastes.
Kale Salad with Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon
Extra-Crispy Tossed Potatoes
Meyer Lemon Grain Salad with Asparagus, Almonds and Goat Cheese

Related: 12 Easy Side Dishes to Go with a Piece of Meat

(Originally published April 21, 2011)

(Images: Faith Durand; Emily Ho; Emma Christensen; Faith Durand)