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Side dishes get a healthy revamp

SHAPE August 2017

Chefs raise the bar on side dishes, making them more healthful, appealing and cost-effective.

Long relegated to an unimportant corner of the dinner plate, the often-uninspired side dish is getting a healthful make-over that not only enables it to better complement the center-of-the-plate item but also helps to generate sales and improve food cost.

The trend toward menuing more intriguing, healthful sides is being driven by a growing number of nutrition-minded consumers, experts say. “It's a long-term trend. Customers are looking for more healthful side dishes these days and chefs are looking to accommodate them,” says Dennis Lombardi, president of Insight Dynamics, LLC, a restaurant advisory service in Columbus, Ohio. “You couldn't find grilled vegetables on the menu 10 years ago.”


Dale Miller, president of Master Chef Consulting Group, LLC, in Clifton Park, N.Y., agrees. “Side dishes are being transformed into more healthful alternatives, displacing the deep-fried sides of yesterday,” Miller says. “By offering innovative, health-conscious side dishes, it gives the customer the option to order additional menu items that give them something new to try, without a calorie overload.”

Chef Todd Seyfarth, department chair/program director for Department of Culinary Nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., notes, “There is no lack of options for people who want to eat more healthy. Meal delivery services have embraced the creative use of more healthful ingredients, and every trendy new restaurant seems to have kale or watercress on the menu.”


Joe Garber, marketing coordinator at Chicago-based research firm Datassential, says several health-centric ingredients and flavors are growing as sides including superfoods like kale and quinoa. Kale, already showing major growth across most menu parts, is turning up in more side dishes — it can be found on 4 percent of side menus, an increase of 188 percent over the past four years. Even “kale slaw” is now a side option. Quinoa is found in 3 percent of sides, up 168 percent over the past four years, showing there is still plenty of room for these ingredients to grow.

Brussels sprouts (up 134 percent) and broccolini (up 94 percent) are also appearing more frequently — roasted, fried or sautéed, Datassential says. Broccolini has become an alternative substitute for the ubiquitous broccoli.

Another trend that seems to be growing as more research is published on ‘gut health’ is fermented side dishes containing naturally occurring pro-biotics, says Seyfarth. “The typically sour notes of these dishes often pair nicely with more unctuous entrées.”


By devising a variety of distinctive, flavorful sides, a restaurant can attract customers who are seeking trendier menu options, which will help differentiate it from the competition, Miller says. Miller suggests several creative, better-for-you side dishes that can replace traditional sides:

• Zucchini carpaccio with roasted almonds and pecorino cheese instead of eggplant parmesan

• Roasted fingerling potatoes with malt vinegar, cracked black pepper and sea salt instead of deep-fried French fries with ketchup or aioli

• Pan-roasted caramelized rainbow cauliflower with charmoula instead of a loaded baked potato.

“Chefs who focus all of their attention on the main course and assume the side dishes are an obligatory part of service are missing a huge potential,” says Seyfarth. “They also allow for an opportunity for a narrative about how your restaurant is more health conscious or sustainable. It also might bring in a type of clientele that wouldn’t ordinarily visit your establishment.”


“Interesting side dishes also can take up more real estate on the plate, potentially improving food cost,” Seyfarth continues.

Sides, in fact, tend to be less expensive per ounce than an entrée, and the amount of food provided creates a sense of value, Lombardi says.

Fruits and vegetables offer more variety of flavor and texture than meats and seafood, and when purchased in-season are often less expensive, Seyfarth says. “This gives chefs an incredible opportunity for both creativity and to address their bottom line. If I was given an oversized scoop of mashed potatoes and an undersized portion of meat, I would likely feel offended by the chef’s choice of portions. However, if I was given a creative side dish that the menu called out as being sourced from a local farm, that the waitstaff sells to me as being part of the chef’s vision of being more health conscious and environmentally friendly, I will be more forgiving when my plate is placed in front of me.”

By sourcing seasonal, lower-cost produce and utilizing menu ingredient byproducts, a chef can help to maintain a healthy food cost. “Plus, by creating a 'wow' factor with flavor and presentation, check averages will naturally increase,” says Miller. Another option would be to add enhancement upgrades to side dishes, which will have a positive impact on percentages and check averages — for example, add lump crab and Remick sauce to roasted artichoke hearts for an additional charge.


Chefs also are devising craveable sides by employing unique and multicultural ethnic ingredients and spices. “Many times they are imparting and melding these flavors into locally grown produce, thus giving a local ingredient international flair,” Miller says. “By utilizing these bold flavors in side dishes, it gives the customer the opportunity to try global taste treats with minimal investment at stake.”

Unquestionably, consumers are paying more attention to sides and want them to be an important part of the meal — and, as a result, chefs are pairing sides to create an overall plating experience. “People are saying, 'I want to be eating things that are not just tasty and attractive but also better for me,'” Lombardi says. “And that's only going to become a bigger part of the experience in the future.”

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