Side Dish Planner

A couple weeks ago when I issued the call for menu planning questions, I had no idea that over 400 of you would respond. The menu planning nerd in me was doing cartwheels. I can’t wait to help you! All the questions, to date, have been compiled, and while there are a lot of questions/concerns/requests that I’ll address in coming weeks, the very large majority of questions center around the almighty side dish. So today, I’m going to help you troubleshoot your side dish conundrums. According to my calculations:

You want multiple side dish options in your menus.

You want side dishes that require minimal prep.

You want to know what side dishes pair well with different main dish recipes.

You want side dishes that can be prepped beforehand.

You want some serious side dish help, basically.

simple and yum

I have something really, really cool to share with you that will revolutionize the way you plan the side dishes for your menus. But first! A few quick notes so you understand where I’m coming from with side dishes:

I plan my menus around the main dishes. Side dishes, while complimenting dinner and providing options for different palates, are not what I spend the majority of my cooking time on. Keep in mind that I have five young-ish children and while I love to cook, dinner prep is definitely my most unfavorite time of the day. It’s all about getting dinner on the table while still maintaining sanity.

So having said that, for family weeknight dinners, I keep our side dishes extremely simple. Usually a lot of fresh fruit, fresh or steamed vegetables, cottage cheese, etc. I like the pull-out-of-the-refrigerator options that require minimal, if any, additional cooking.

But because I also believe that offering a variety of foods helps my kids develop good palates, I try to make side dishes really count (i.e. actually using a recipe) a couple of times during the week, especially for Sunday dinners (our family’s nicest meal of the week, usually) and if company is coming over. The large majority of side dishes I use can be prepped ahead of time or are fast to put together.


In order to help YOU figure out what side dishes to prepare, I’ve developed a matrix for you to use when planning your menus. This downloadable PDF document is basically the answer to “If I Make This…” I can “Choose One or More of These Side Dishes…” Consider it a mix-and-match menu planner. Sometimes half the battle of side dishes is figuring out what pairs well with a main dish.

Additionally, in the spreadsheet (by now, you should know I love me some spreadsheets), there are little notes to indicate which side dishes can be made ahead of time and which ones require minimal to no prep.CLICK TO DOWNLOAD FINAL

If side dishes stress you out, keep in mind that simplifying is the way to go! I rarely spend more than 10 minutes on a side dish for a weeknight dinner and yet our meals are well-rounded and robust in flavor and ingredients.

For some added help, in the next few weeks, I’ll also be pumping up the free, downloadable menu plans to incorporate more side dish options and I’ll be giving suggestions for future main dish posts on what side dishes would work well for that new recipe.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting some menu planning solutions focused on the other popular questions you submitted:
Gluten-Free and other Dietary Restricted Menus
Dinner for One or Two
After Work Dinner Solutions
Alternate Menus for When Dinner Won’t Work Out As Planned (or You Want to Gag at the Thought of What You Had Planned)
Cooking on a Tight(er) Budget
Repurposing Leftovers
Lunch and Breakfast Menus/Ideas
How to Cope with the Crazy Dinner Hour (i.e. Get Dinner On the Table With Young Kids)
FAQ Post

Menu planning made simple – that’s the goal!


58 Responses to Menu Planning Solution: Side Dish Planner!

  1. Sara R. says:

    Just wanted to say thank you for this spreadsheet, along with a big thanks for your other meal planning spreadsheet/tips/etc!! So, so helpful! If you are still taking requests, I would love to know what types of things you fix your kids for breakfast and lunch. I have a one-year-old little boy (our first child) that I want to encourage to be a healthy and adventurous eater but I struggle with coming up with variety and also with how to overcome the pickiness that he has suddenly acquired.

  2. Sarah says:

    This is my favorite website, hands down. I can always always count on your recipes. Now a side dish matrix? It’s like you’re a mind-reader. Thank you!

  3. Cami says:

    Love it! You’re a genius!

  4. Ruth says:

    Mel, you continue to wow me with all that you do. Thank you for being so responsive to needs and requests. This is so helpful and it is very much appreciated!!

  5. Tamaira says:

    You are wonderful! Thank you for all your hard work! I needed some side dish saving this week!

  6. Laken says:

    You have made my most hated part of menu planning easy peasy! One million thank yous! This is so great!

  7. Michelle Reich says:

    Wow! I love and soooo appreciate how much work went in to this! I feel like I’m always missing great recipes on your site. You add new ones faster than I can make them! One suggestion that I think would make the spreadsheet even easier to read would be to divide the side dish options into Breads, Green Veggie , Starchy Veggie, and Fruit categories. Just an idea to help us hone in on what we’re looking for. I’m always looking for more green veggies! Time to sit down and make next week’s meal plan!

  8. Laura M says:

    Correction. I tried again from this site and not the downloadable and it worked!

  9. Laura M says:

    I tried to Pin this because I’m sure it would go ballistic! But it wouldn’t Pin.

  10. Emily says:

    This is awesome!!! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Shari says:

    You rock!!! This is exactly what I needed. I like to menu plan, but struggle with side dishes. THANK YOU!!

  12. shawna says:

    YES!! So happy about this!! Can’t wait to check out every detail! So excited for the upcoming posts too! I hope you will start adding a little postcript at the end of all your dinner meals with a few possible side dishes to serve with that meal. Thank you!!

  13. Katie says:

    This is A-Mazing. Thank you for all the wonderful suggestions. I am going to use this spreadsheet all. the. time.

  14. KT says:

    This is exactly what I was hoping for, but thought was way too much to ask. Thank you!!

  15. Lara says:

    Just adding more kudos to the list. Thanks so much for this!

  16. Ann says:

    You are amazing! I recommend your site to everyone.

  17. Julie says:

    I love you!

  18. Lachelle says:

    Thanks so much! When I clicked on zucchini mozzerella medley it took me to twice baked potatoes.

  19. Meghan says:

    It is so nicely organized and easy to follow.

  20. Meghan says:

    Great idea!

  21. Justin says:

    Mel! This is absolutely amazing. I’m a 28 year old, single male that had limited experience cooking until I follow your blog. Now when I pack lunch from leftover dinners, everyone in my office looks at me and goes, “Is that a Mel?” They all know you by name now! My friends and co-workers love your muffins/cookies! And when I tell my mom what I made for dinner, she is always so impressed of what her son has done. Thanks again for this gift to the world you’ve given us.

  22. Stacie D. says:

    You are amazing Mel! I can’t wait to get right into this! Thank you!

  23. Shanell says:

    That is a very clever way to think of organizing/planning side dishes. Love it! I’m sure it took a ton of work – but it is very appreciated! Thanks for all the links – awesome!!!

  24. Sheila says:

    Mel, you are amazing! Reading, “I can’t wait to help you”, reaffirmed what a “heart of gold” you have. Those incredible spreadsheets required much hard work, time, and kindness. Sure looks like a labor of love to me. And help us you did — big time! This lovely resource is so easy to use with every recipe just a click away. Thank you for your generosity, kindness, and support!

  25. Emily says:

    Thank you for your generosity in taking the time to put together such a nice document! As I scanned through I saw your creamy confetti corn and thought ooooohhh must make that again soon, it was soooo good!

  26. Nicole says:

    Another WOW! and THANK YOU! comment. You really have put so much work into this blog for several years now and helped so many people, that must feel good, I hope you feel our appreciation 🙂 . Thank you thank you (again and again and again…..)!!! Looking forward to using this side dish planner.

  27. Heather says:

    When I read BBQ Chicken salad, serve corn on the cob, I almost cried. I can’t wait for summer! Thanks for this, this will really help!

  28. Angela says:

    Thank you! You rock!

  29. Amanda R says:

    So looking forward to this series! Thanks so much for all this Mel! I’m sure you’ve spent a lot of time on it!

  30. Katrina Fraser says:

    From the bottom of my heart THANK YOU!!! I am so excited to review this and implement your plan. I can pull menus together and we usually stick to it but then side dishes I am like I don’t know and I freeze while planning my grocery list. I have noticed your new recipes include side dish examples of what you may serve and I realize keep it simple keep it fresh. Thank you again this was some hard work I am sure.

  31. Jen T says:

    Wow Mel you are just awesome! Thanks so much for your hard work and helping us out!!!

  32. Holly says:

    Wowee! This is fantastic for those allusive side dishes. Thanks a bunch Mel! I also love, love, triple love, the weekly menu in your footer! If you can’t be in my kitchen for dinner, that is definitely the next best thing.

  33. I love this, Mel. I’m making a virtual cookbook for my grandson to inherit using bookmarks and putting recipes in folders by food type. I made a new folder titled “Side Dishes & Matrix”. Your work will be used for generations to come. Thank you for all that you do for us.

  34. Jennie says:

    This is truly amazing. Not only are there side dishes but the main dish recipes are there too! THANK YOU!

  35. Soonhee says:

    Love this, Mel! You are a life saver! Thank you for making my life much more organized and simpler.

  36. Barbi Jensen says:

    This is super cool! Thank you!

  37. Army.of 7 says:

    I feel like you are the greatest friend ever!! (How cheesy is that?) In the last week I have made your broccoli salad for lunch, Black bean hummus for snack, pizza dough for lunch box pizza rolls, buttermilk cinnamon rolls, granola bars & chocolate chip peanut butter cookies- all yours! Oh & sloppy Joe’s tonight. I am very interested in the repurposed left overs (I call it cook once eat twice). If I could make one slightly huge request? Could your tag your dairy free or dairy optional recipes in one easy to find spot? I would be so grateful!

  38. Julie Stottmann says:

    Mel you are a goddess!! 🙂 My husband has asked for years if we could do a weekly menu (he likes to look forward to food 😉 I have resisted because it was “too much trouble”! And then for some reason it always surprises me that dinner comes around every single night and a)I am scrambling to put something together before the hubby gets home b)calling the hubby to pick something up on the way home or we go out or c) pouring bowls of cereal at 6:00 pm! I found your website through Pinterest and saw your weekly meal planner and thought “well maybe this won’t be so bad if someone else has done all the work for me!”. I was so impressed with your recipes and the fact that you put entire meals together, not just the main dish AND all the recipes are right at my fingertips!. I struggle mostly with sides, proven by the Costco mega box of canned green beans in my pantry 😉 I can’t believe how much having a weekly menu has helped to simplify my life and as a bonus, thrilled my husband to death! I just wanted to thank you for all of the hard work that goes into these menus and your site. You are truly making life easier, healthier and tastier for menu challenged/phobic folks like me. Thanks for helping my husband’s dream come true! You are the best! 🙂

  39. Celeste says:

    This rules. How awesome are you?! (So very awesome.)

  40. Patti says:

    It is like Garanimal tags for side dishes!

  41. Truly AMAZING! and unbelievably helpful

  42. Logan says:

    Thank you Mel for all your hard work.

  43. Nicole Hunn says:

    You totally did it, Mel! This is going to be such a help to so many people. You’re, like, the Fairy Godmother of meal planning!!

  44. Stacy says:

    This is great Mel! Thank you so much. This is such a great resource to your already awesome selection of dinner options/recipes, I can’t wait to look over the side dish spreadsheet closer! I’m also looking forward to the upcoming posts that resemble my troubles I emailed you about – gagging at thought of pre-planned meal, how to cope with crazy dinner hour with young kids, & after work solutions 🙂

  45. Racquel says:

    Wow! You never cease to amaze me. Thank you a million times over. This is awesome and will save my sanity.

  46. Sound Beacher says:

    This is so hand to search for new sides, all so organized. Thanks so much Mel! Looking forward for the upcoming menu planning solutions. You are a hero at our house!

  47. Marie says:

    Holy cow, Mel!!!!! This is amazing. It looks like you must have really put a lot of time and thought into this. Thanks for your hard work. Your blog is my very favorite!

  48. Sherrie says:

    WOW! Thank you so much, this is absolutely wonderful!

  49. Maureen says:

    Hi Mel,

    This comes at a perfect time! In the very near future I’m heading back onto the diet train and in trying to plan out what we’ll be eating by following the recommended choices, I was left with “2 servings vegetables” which with my imagination meant steamed this and that. Blah. However, my fellas have gotten used to good food from your menus and I was checking in today to see if I could accommodate both my diet and their taste buds. Yes! I’ll definitely be using this planner. Thanks! 🙂

  50. Tracy says:

    A huge thank you for putting this all together!! I’m not sure where you possibly find the time, but very thankful that you do. 🙂 I already meal plan, yet find myself in a rut and very often go to old standbys …this will help immensely! Your site is the first stop when I’m looking for dinner inspiration – thank you, thank you, thank you!

  51. Mandy says:

    Wow that is awesome! Thank you for taking the time to put that together. I find myself coming to your site for most of my meals more and more. You and I cook a lot alike. Thank you again!

  52. Karen says:

    Aaah Mel, you are just the best! Thank you for mentioning that most of the time you keep the side dishes very simple. Most nights all I can handle is to cut up an apple or steam a veggie. Since you are my hero :), it’s nice to know you don’t have a gorgeous spread with six course meals every night 🙂 :).

  53. Becky says:

    I have the same side dish philosophy that you do! I can’t wait to spend way too much time analyzing the side dish planner 🙂 Millions of thank yous xo

  54. Amy P says:

    You have no idea how excited I am to have this side dish planner! Thank you thank you thank you for going to all that work – I can’t wait to use it this week! And I’m sure that making the recipes clickable was definitely a ton of work but it was oh-so-worth it….you know how sometimes there’s just that one silly little thing stopping you from actually following through? Having to search for the recipe would’ve been my downfall. And I’m excited to see side dish suggestions on your future blog posts – I’ve always wondered why bloggers didn’t link to their own side dish recipes more often. It’s a win-win! Thanks again!

  55. Kim in MD says:

    I love this, Mel!

  56. Monica says:

    Hi there! I wanted to give a big “wow” to all the info and ideas/recipes compiled here! I started writing down menu ideas for the week starting around January and it’s working out really well. It’s really helped me to stretch my cooking and keep things interesting. It also helps with grocery shopping and reducing waste.
    I love this side dish planning idea. I made green beans & grape tomatoes last night and I realized that in the past, I often omitted the side dish. Giving the menu more thought now, we incorporate a lot more vegetables on our table. I’m looking forward to checking out all your side dish recipes. Thank you!

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