As a longtime vegetarian, I’ve become something of an expert on side dishes. And I can tell you, healthy side dishes are few and far between. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat down to a meal of pasta, bread, and maybe a salad if I’m lucky, because to so many people, “meatless” means “throw some carbs at it and call it good.” If your dietary practices fall outside the Western mainstream, you’ve probably had similar experiences. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

My grandmother was a vegetarian in the days when produce was strictly seasonal, and vegetarian protein meant a handful of nuts. Fortunately, today there are several different meatless proteins waiting at your favorite grocery store. And with a rainbow of veggies available year round, there is no excuse for serving boring, stodgy side dishes. In fact, if you do it right, you can make healthy side dishes that everyone will enjoy.

But first, some nutritional basics.

Protein: the Bedrock of Healthy Side Dishes

Fat, protein, and carbohydrates are the building blocks of a healthy diet. Fat had a bad rap for a while until Dr. Atkins taught us the joys of a hot buttered steak for breakfast. Today carbs are likewise out of fashion. But the truth is, your body needs them all — in balance. In the Western diet, meat and dairy products are the largest sources of dietary protein. A lot of people never think beyond them, and that’s a shame. There are so many meatless proteins on the market today, and in most places, you don’t even have to set foot in a health food store to find them. Here are some of the most popular ones.

What the heck is tofu, anyway?

Tofu is a bean curd made from soybeans. It’s high in protein, and basically flavorless. As a result, it will take on the flavors of the foods with which you cook it. It also comes in a variety of textures. Silken tofu, for example, is great for desserts and smoothies. Conversely, extra firm tofu works well in stir-fry and other savory dishes. Additionally, you can find pre-baked flavored tofu, which slices up like cheese and goes well with crackers.

There are a variety of ways to cook it, depending on which tofu you’re using. I like to grill, fry, or bake extra firm tofu. Here’s one of many healthy side dishes you can try that use tofu as a base. As a bonus, you can use this recipe with seitan, mycoprotein, and tempeh as well.

Lightly Fried Tofu with Your Choice of Spices

Ingredients:

  • 1 package (14 ounces) of extra firm tofuHealthy Side Dishes
  • 2 T soy sauce
  • 2 T rice vinegar
  • 1 t sesame oil
  • 1 t honey
  • 1/2 t ginger powder
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
  • sesame seeds

Image via Domestic Super Hero

Substitutions/additions: For peanut sauce, add 1 T peanut butter to the marinade. You can also add chopped spring onions or chopped jalapeno peppers. I also like to add a squirt of lime juice.

Directions: First, drain the tofu and slice it. Then press the slices between paper towels to remove excess water. The more water you remove, the crispier your tofu will turn out. Crispy is good. Then combine all of the other ingredients except for the sesame seeds, and marinate your tofu for five minutes on each side. Finally, lightly fry for three to four minutes on each side. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve over a bed of rice or greens.

Seitan: yes, it’s gluten

Seitan is a meat substitute made from wheat protein — that’s right, it’s gluten. If you’re skipping gluten, then seitan isn’t for you. Otherwise, you might enjoy its meaty texture. Seitan comes plain or pre-flavored. You might find it in the form of cutlets, filets, or even cold cuts. You can use it anywhere you would use chicken breast. Seitan works well in the recipe above, or you can try out some of these from All Recipes.

Tempeh

Tempeh is fermented soybeans pressed into a cake. You might think that “fermented” means a strong, astringent taste, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Tempeh has a mild, nutty flavor and a pleasantly crumbly texture. It goes very well with a peanut sauce, for example. You can bake it, fry it, or grill it, for a variety of tasty and healthy side dishes. If you’re curious, Tempeh.com has 100 recipes for you to try.

Mycoprotein: the fungus among us

Ew. Are you kidding? No, I’m not, and this stuff is amazing. Mycoprotein is a vegetarian protein source that’s high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and has zero cholesterol. Yes, it’s a fungus. So are mushrooms. But mycoproteins are so much more versatile and nutritionally dense than mushrooms. The most popular brand on the market is Quorn. Many Quorn products use egg to improve the texture, though some products have a vegan version as well. Like seitan, mycoprotein has a meaty texture and can be used wherever chicken breast is called for. In the stores, you can find it as filets, chunks, cold cuts, burgers, and more. You can find even more recipes at Quorn’s website.

Beans and legumes

Research is constantly uncovering new health benefits of these humble staple foods. First, they’re high in both fiber and protein. They have no cholesterol, either. Many are high in iron and magnesium as well.

On top of that, they’re inexpensive and widely available. And if that’s not enough, when it comes to healthy side dishes containing these nutritional powerhouses, you’re spoiled for choice. Here are a few I like.

Homemade hummus

Hummus is a favorite with kids and adults alike. And it’s easy to make your own. Serve with vegetable batons or toasted pita bread fingers for dipping. And if this recipe gets you curious about chickpeas, check out this article to see what else you could be using them for.

Ingredients:

  • 1 can of chickpeasHealthy Side Dishes
  • 1.5 T lemon juice
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 3 T tahini (it’s a paste made from ground sesame seeds)

Extras/substitutions: chopped garlic, salt, and pepper to taste.

Directions: First, drain and rinse the chickpeas. Then, combine all of these ingredients in a food processor or blender, and blitz until smooth. That’s it. Seriously. If you feel like getting fancy, you can top it with a drizzle of olive oil or even chili oil.

Image via Chef in you

Lentil Salad (recipe by Kate Merker and Sara Quessenberry)

Real Simple Magazine pairs this salad with pork. But I think it goes well on its own. It’s crisp and bright and flavorful. And if you use your imagination, you can make it attractive as well.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dry green lentils. (Yes, it matters which kind of lentils you use. They all have different flavors)Healthy Side Dishes
  • 1 apple, chopped 
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1/4 C fresh parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 T fresh lemon juice
  • 2 T olive oil, salt and pepper to taste

Directions: First, cook the lentils for 30 minutes in four cups of boiling water. Then, drain and toss with the other ingredients.

Image via Karrisa’s Vegan Kitchen

“Popcorn” Edamame (recipe by Alayna Tucker)

Edamame, or soybeans, are another favorite with both adults and kids. The most popular way to eat these is boiled, with just a pinch of salt on top. This recipe, though, is a great substitute for chips. It’s crunchy and fun and tasty and is guaranteed to be a hit.

Ingredients:Healthy Side Dishes

  • One 12oz. bag of frozen shelled edamame 
  • 1 t olive oil 
  • the juice from half a lemon
  • salt to taste

Directions: Preheat over to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Thaw edamame by running it under warm water, then toss with the oil, lemon juice, and salt. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until crispy, then toss with salt. Personally, I think this would be tasty with a bit of chili powder as well.

Image via Fine Cooking

Vegetables: a Rainbow on Your Plate

A lot of people think of vegetables as a chore, or even worse, a bore. But they don’t have to be. Vegetables are packed with nutrition, texture, and flavor, and, done right, you can make them into tasty, attractive, healthy side dishes as well.

Cauliflower

In recent years, cauliflower has enjoyed a new status as the ultimate hipster vegetable. People have ground it up and made pizza crusts out of it. They’ve also put it through a ricer and made a rice substitute. Cauliflower steaks have found their way onto a lot of menus, and more. And it is the basis for many healthy side dishes. It’s not just the dull, boiled, soggy mess that used to come with school lunches. And it’s not hard to use it to make something spectacular. Check this out.

Harissa roasted cauliflower (Recipe by the Communal Table)

Cauliflower has a strong taste, but roasting it mellows that taste, and brings out an unexpected sweetness. Harissa is a spicy Middle Eastern paste used to flavor savory dishes. They go very well together. This recipe from The Communal Table is not only tasty, though. It’s also easy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cauliflowerHealthy Side Dishes
  • 1 sprig sage, leaves removed
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 T harissa
  • Salt and black pepper
  • ¼ cup pitted olives
  • ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

Directions: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the head of cauliflower into small florets. Toss with the sage leaves, olive oil, 1 tablespoon of harissa, and salt & pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, then toss again, with the rest of the harissa. Top with the olives and almonds.

Image via Dishing Out Health

Fennel

How much can you do with fennel? You’d be surprised. Fennel is a funny sort of vegetable. It’s fibrous, with a light, licorice-y flavor — sort of like celery’s prettier sister. And in my opinion, it’s underused. You can do some amazing, and attractive things with fennel, though. It can be a garnish or the centerpiece of any number of healthy side dishes. And if you find you like it, here are 53 more things you can do with fennel, courtesy of Bon Appetit Magazine.

Plum-fennel salad with honey-ginger dressing

This recipe, from Bon Appetit, is light and refreshing.

Ingredients:Healthy Side Dishes

  • ¼ cup fresh orange juice
  • 1 T white wine vinegar
  • 2½ t honey
  • 1½ t finely grated peeled ginger, divided
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 3 large red plums, cut into thin wedges
  • ½ small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • Olive oil, toasted sesame seeds, and fennel fronds (for garnish)                                                   Image via Bon Appetit

Directions: First, for the dressing, whisk orange juice, vinegar, honey, 1 tsp. ginger, and salt in a bowl. Then, add the plums and fennel, and toss. Cover and chill for 30 minutes. Then toss in the remaining ginger. Serve drizzled with oil and topped with sesame seeds and fennel.

Mushrooms

I know — not a vegetable. And I also know that mushrooms are the go-to ingredient for so many healthy side dishes, you’re probably sick of hearing about them. But it doesn’t have to be another dang grilled portobello. You can make this interesting. And fun. You can even make it something that the meat-eaters at the table will eye with envy. The following recipe, by Fiona Reilly, sounds complicated. But the only complex thing about it is the flavors. It’s easy to make, pretty, and will disappear fast. You can serve it with rice, or by itself.

Soy-braised fall mushrooms with chestnuts

Ingredients:

  • 2 t cornstarchHealthy Side Dishes
  • 3 1/2 ounces fresh chestnuts, peeled (about 1 cup)
  • 9 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms (such as button, beec, shiitake, or enoki), sliced (about 1 1/2 quarts)
  • 2 T vegetable oil
  • 2 scallions, white parts only, finely sliced (about 3 T)
  • 1/2-inch knob ginger, peeled and finely sliced (about 2 t)
  • 2 t dark soy sauce
  • 2 t light soy sauce
  • 1 clove of peeled and sliced garlic
  • 2 t sesame oil

Image via Serious Eats

Directions: First, for the chestnuts and mushrooms, bring a large pot of water to boil. Then, cook the chestnuts for five minutes. Remove them from the water. Finally, in the same water, cook the mushrooms for one minute, then remove.

For the sauce, combine the cornstarch with two T of water.

Finally, it’s time to cook. First, add the oil to a wok or a frying pan and heat. Then, add the ginger, scallions, and garlic, and cook for one minute. Stir in the chestnuts, and then the mushrooms. After one minute more, add the soy sauces, and then the cornflour and water mixture. Cook for one minute, and then remove from heat and add sesame oil and salt to taste.

Setting the Table

Healthy side dishes don’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. And you don’t need a lot of expensive ingredients. Do you have any healthy side dishes you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.