2. Texture: A plate that includes a variety of textures not only looks more appealing, it is also a lot more fun to eat. Think about fried chicken with mashed potatoes and a cabbage slaw: crunchy, smooth and crisp in one meal.
Texture also comes into play if your main dish is very saucy, and would benefit from a soft, starchy side to soak up the juices, such as curry with rice or braised short ribs over polenta.
3. Color: We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths, and a colorful plate always looks more appetizing than a monochromatic one. If you're serving carnitas tacos with beans (brown, white and brown), add some color to the plate with a corn, radish and avocado salad and a scoop of Spanish rice.
4. "Weight": Heavy main dishes that center around a lot of meat or cheese are better off paired with at least one lighter, fresher side, like a shaved vegetable salad or a simple green salad. If a plain salad sounds boring, try dressing it with an unusual vinaigrette, or mixing in ingredients with textural contrast, like toasted nuts, soft cheese or dried fruit.
5. Cooking method: Planning a meal also means coordinating oven and stove space. The easiest pairings maximize oven time by cooking the sides along with the main dish, like a roasted chicken with roasted root vegetables or one-sheet-pan dinners. If your meal already involves bringing a pot of water to a boil, make the most of it by incorporating a side of blanched and dressed vegetables or an orzo salad.
6. Ease of preparation: Finally, a good meal also requires a cook with her sanity intact. Unless you are itching for a full day of cooking, don't plan on serving a labor-intensive main dish with a side that also requires hours of close attention. But easy sides don't have to be boring; in-season vegetables need just a sprinkling of salt and a little good olive oil to be a stand-out side dish, and any whole grain, cooked in well-salted water, can be simply dressed up with chopped fresh herbs or a bright vinaigrette.
For many more ideas, check out our archives:
Side Dish Recipes on The Kitchn
Do you have any tips or tricks for coming up with side dishes that pair well with your main dish?
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)