Choosing Sides, Meal Plan Primer Part IV

Dear Home Ec 101,

I need to get our food budget under control, we spend a ton of money eating out.  It’s starting to cause fights.  I can’t cook, I can’t plan, and even if I could I wouldn’t know where to start.


Hopeless in Hopeswell

Heather says:

I began this series as a response to Hopeless back in August of 2008 and new readers are encouraged to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series for tips on getting a handle on meal planning. A commenter recently requested that I continue posting menu plans as they helped her find ideas for side items, which is the inspiration for this installment.

First of all, the calendar is a huge influence on what we eat with our meals. I’ve been working with Cameron Blazer at Cottage Industrialist to create a series of calendars and recipe cards that focus on the available produce each month.(January – June & July – December) Over the course of 2010 we will continue to provide recipes that highlight produce available in that calendar month. The flow of the seasons imparts a natural variety in our diets. It’s easy to say this in spring as new fruits and vegetables begin appearing weekly at the produce stand and farmer’s market. In the winter months, I do find myself reaching for frozen produce to bring color and variety to our meals. We are huge fans of frozen broccoli, green beans, corn, and peas. I highly suggest trying at least two seasonal recipes a month, shoot for one a week.

With children and new recipes, there’s always a minimal bite requirement. If you cook for other adults they should have enough courtesy to at least try an item without complaint; it’s a matter of respect and maturity on their part. As a caveat, if you do cook for suspicious types, only introduce new side items on a day where the main menu item is familiar.

When planning a week’s menu first plan the main items for the week. Then go back and fill in the corners with appropriate side items. While fusion cuisine is all the rage in some high end restaurants, try to center a meal around complimentary flavors.

Aim for two sides per meal, with at least one simple vegetable or salad. Casseroles count as both main dish and one side and if they are packed with vegetables, they can count as all three.

Keep a rein on the number of starches served, whether they are of the pasta, rice, potato, or corn variety. If one of these items is used in the main dish, substitute legumes or steamed vegetables for the usual sides. If rice is in the main dish, try lentil pilaf on the side. While no one in my household has diabetes, it does run in my family and I pay close attention to how many simple starches we consume.

Sometimes reaching for the same vegetables is a-ok. If everyone in the house loves roasted broccoli, by all means serve it. Frequently.

Raw vegetables make a great addition to a soup and sandwich night. How’s that for no effort?

Never underestimate the flavor improvement provided by substituting vegetables, chicken, or beef stock (or broth) for water when cooking vegetables or rice. If you use store-bought stock, broth, base, or bouillon please keep an eye on your overall sodium consumption. Use the lower sodium alternatives whenever possible. Better yet, learn how to make your own chicken or turkey stock. Heck, I’ve even made it from chicken feet. When you make your own, there’s no worry about MSG or absurdly high sodium content.

Add vegetables to your rice dishes. Instead of serving plain rice, try rice and peas, fried rice, or Spanish rice which provide a lot more flavor than the plain version.

When serving a meal, color is a big deal. As a rule of thumb, try to never serve a pale meal. If you make fettucini alfredo, serve it on a bed of spinach or make wilted spinach on the side. Top the dish with diced tomatoes or serve steamed baby carrots. Avoid the baked chicken, rice, gravy, and corn rut. Even a simple swap for steamed broccoli makes a big impact, rice and tomato gravy? Even better. Reach for purple cabbage instead of green, if the other items aren’t visually stimulating. The simple addition of black beans or bell peppers can give corn a confetti appearance. Use sweet potatoes instead of russet. As a bonus, darker or brighter colors are often a useful indication of nutritional content.

Don’t forget there is a lot more to salad than the sad iceberg salad mix in the produce section.  Try different lettuces or spinach for variety.

For the biggest impact of all, try to create a flow of flavor from one item to another.

How do you keep your side items interesting?

PS Fearless Friday is now a monthly event, so mark your calendar for this Friday April 2. Any adventurous cooking done during the month of March is eligible.

Send your domestic questions to

*I’ll work on combining the side item and on the side categories over the course of the week, they should be under the Cook It section of the site’s navigation ASAP.*

I’m on the ball.

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7 thoughts on “Choosing Sides, Meal Plan Primer Part IV”

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  2. Pingback: Menu Plan Monday – 4/26/2010 | Simply Savvy Living
  3. Pingback: Menu Plan Monday – 4/26/2010 » MYSD
  4. I am absolutely stuck in a rut when it comes to side dishes – heck, even main dishes! My father in law is the pickiest, pickiest eater I've ever met in my life. Seriously. We need for him to eat, so I'm stuck making the things he likes. The worst part is, he has very little short-term memory, so he doesn't even remember that I just made stuffing three times in one week. Or I'll make something one night and he'll like it, and the next time he won't know what it is and won't touch it. And sadly, unlike with a child, you can't make a child eat something because you're the parent!
    My recent post Divine Deviled Eggs

    • Jen, you are in a very difficult position and I want to note my suggestions are intended for those dealing with superficially picky people, not someone with dementia. Can you seek out the advice of a dietitian, they may have suggestions for you.
      Aside from that, what if you made the foods he loves in large batches and froze individual servings to serve to him? It may help you and your husband keep your sanity.

  5. Are the seasonal recipe cards up for March and April yet? I tried searching for them, but perhaps I'm just choosing the wrong search terms. It happens. A lot. Thanks!


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