13 Easy Side Dishes to Go with Any Meal

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Here’s a common dilemma. You find something fabulous to make for dinner — maybe a quick weeknight stir-fry, or a more luxurious weekend pasta dish. You get everything ready and then say, “Wait — what am I going to serve with this? What side dishes go?” This is a question we hear a lot from our readers, so today let me walk you through 13 ideas for simple side dishes that go well with nearly any meal.

When making side dishes, there are a couple of key principles I rely on: 1. Use what’s in season and 2. Don’t forget about the canned goods. These two seemingly contradictory principles are actually quite complementary.

The first is just a reminder to look around at what’s around. Don’t try too hard — are there tomatoes in the garden or from the market? It really doesn’t matter what else you’re serving; slice up those tomatoes and serve them with a drizzle of olive oil. Done. Got vegetables? Slice and serve. I’ve served plates of cucumbers with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and vinegar, and corn straight from the grill. With a vegetarian or non-vegetarian main, these are beautifully simple side dishes that don’t take much time.

The second principle actually complements the first, because I find that canned beans and chickpeas are wonderful side dishes when dressed up with a smattering of seasonal vegetables. Maybe you just have one tomato or bell pepper left — not enough for a whole side dish. Well, that with some olive oil and cumin can season a can of beans. Voila — yummy side dish.

And when in doubt (and when you need some starch and something green) brown rice and an arugula salad go with anything. Here are some other favorite side dishes and general guidelines (like roasted vegetables).

Colorful Salads

  • Light & Easy Broccoli Salad: If you really want to save time, reach for a bag or two of broccoli slaw from the grocery store. This crunchy salad will come together in just a couple of minutes.
  • Avocado Caprese Salad: Juicy tomatoes are the perfect complement to rich, buttery chunks of avocado. This colorful dish is ideal alongside anything from a piece of steak or a delicate fillet of fish.
  • Lemony Green Salad with Radicchio and Pepitas: Radicchio not only adds a pretty purple hue to this simple green salad, but its delicate bitter flavor is also a nice contrast to a hearty main dish.
  • Grilled Zucchini Salad: If you don’t have access to a grill, this Greek-inspired salad can also be prepared by roasting the zucchini or grilling it on a grill pan.
  • White Bean and Roasted Vegetable Salad: A flavorful bean salad (made with canned beans) goes with almost anything, and it involves very little more than opening up some beans and chopping some colorful veggies.
  • Brown Rice Salad with Apples, Walnuts, and Cherries: Brown rice salads like this one are a good reason to keep an extra portion of brown rice on hand. If you need a last-minute side dish, just toss with a bit of dressing and some aromatics (like scallions) and something crunchy (like walnuts) and something sweet (like cherries). Ta-da! Rice salad. (Here is how to cook brown rice.)
  • Red Potato Salad with Scallions and Radishes: The potato is another good simple side dish. Boil or steam some little potatoes and toss them with crunchy vegetables, olive oil, and lemon juice. Salt and pepper well!

Extra-Simple Sides

  • Arugula and Fennel Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette: Never, never underestimate the arugula salad. It goes with anything, from a breakfast omelet to an evening chickpea stew or grilled steak. You can make it in about 60 seconds, too.
  • Spinach Salad with Warm Brown Butter Dressing: Tossing greens with a warm vinaigrette is perhaps the simplest way to elevate them without any fuss.
  • Miso Soup: Miso soup is a quick, savory addition to nearly any meal — with or without rice and an egg.
  • Stir-Fried or Sauteéd Greens: A big mess of spinach, bok choy, or other greens, sauteéd quickly with garlic, is one of the simplest no-recipe recipes I know. Kale, turnip greens, and other hearty greens are great in the fall too.
  • Roasted Vegetables: Any seasonal vegetable, roasted, is yummy. (Here are some tips for quick-roasting under the broiler. Also, a tip for easier cleanup)
  • Grilled Vegetables: On a similar note, nearly any vegetable can be grilled. If you’re baking a main dish or using the stovetop, throw some cabbage wedges on the grill, or a hunk of romaine lettuce, or a bundle of asparagus. Delicious and easy.