1. Flavor: There is a reason why traditional cuisines have their own specific palette of flavors — certain herbs, seasonings and sauces work together well, while other combinations can be jarring. Whether you're an experienced cook or just starting out, The Flavor Bible is an invaluable reference book for looking up flavor combinations that work. It also includes a list of ingredients and seasonings for a wide variety of traditional cuisines, so even if you have never eaten Moroccan food, you'll know apricots, ginger and pine nuts will taste good accompanying a Moroccan-style main dish.
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)