Top Ten Side Dish Trends

Top Ten Side Dish Trends

Food & Drink

Top Ten Side Dish Trends


This list is based on research conducted by The Food Channel in conjunction with CultureWaves®, the International Food Futurists®, and Mintel International. Here are the trends we see for “what’s happening on the side.”

sides lead bannerSide dishes are front and center. Restaurants across the country are serving up innovative dishes that help increase check averages. Health conscious consumers have contributed to the craze — it’s acceptable to order a variety of delicious sides and downsize the meat. And, in a challenging economy, anything that stretches the meal is in high favor.  Restaurant side dishes have always provided consumers with a way to try something new. The rise in ethnic influences, regional dishes, and fresh seasonal ingredients has all influenced the trend. In response, restaurants are giving more space to sides than ever before. In fact, we’re calling sides the new “center of the plate.”

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In the old days, as they say, we ate when things came into season. There was no magic to it — it was simply a reflection of when products were available. Tomatoes came into season and we ate them. Peaches were ready to be picked, and we ate them. But over the years, the lines got blurred as we processed food and seasonal foods became available year-round. As Hudson Riehle, the National Restaurant Association’s Senior Vice President of Research and Knowledge Group, says, “It’s very important from the restaurant’s point of view to tout these seasonal items on the menu because the customer is very well educated on the taste profiles.” Larry Oberkfell, the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association President and Chief Executive, says that seasonality is a trend the industry is seeing across the board. “The whole local and seasonality trend has not only hit the side dish category in a huge way but also many other parts of the menu.” 

For further evidence, read . . .

Farmers Markets Hit the Road Rolling

Global Cuisine Gets Localized in Canada

Pop-Up Store Sells Restaurant Foods from Bay Area 

A Jarring New Restaurant Trend

Joe the Farmer Grows Crops for His Community

Recipe Evidence

Sweet and Savory Apples

side dish trend 2

To be seasonal, you have to have access, and what better access than your own garden? Chefs across the country have embraced this trend in a big way. Whether it’s a backyard affair, a rooftop urban garden, or produce from a community supported agriculture farm, gardens are bigger than ever. NRA’s Riehle says this trend is really gaining traction, even in urban areas. “Even in the city areas you see a strong effort to have rooftop gardens. It really is amazing.” T.J. Delle Donne, Director of Culinary Events for Johnson & Wales University, says this trend is good for the industry. “Growing, harvesting, sustaining and preparing your own food is the ultimate appreciation you can give not only to your restaurant guests but to the industry. There have been studies which have linked eating from the local land to better health.” He adds, “Just knowing when and where the food you’re producing has come from truly puts your mind at ease. There’s a feeling of team work, self satisfaction, guest satisfaction, leaving a good footprint on the earth, not to mention giving back, respect for generations to come and lowering food costs.” Restaurant Hospitality’s Executive Food Editor, Gail Bellamy, thinks chefs who grow their own ingredients can use it as a marketing tool. “As more guests want to know where their food comes from, who grew it and how it gets from the farm or garden to the table, it will be a point of distinction for the restaurant. It’s the ultimate in establishing the pedigree of what’s on the plate.”

For Vegetable Connoisseurs, Heirlooms Are Hot

Little Lettuce Heads for Small Households

New Product Cleans Produce, Extends Shelf Life

Rules for Eating, According to Michael Pollan

Recipe evidence:

Roasted Butternut Squash and Apples with Maple-Glazed Pecans


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Roasted is the new grilled, the new fried, the “why didn’t we think of this before” preparation that adds a depth of flavor to side dishes. There is something about the brown bits of carmelization that makes vegetables new, particularly when you roast a blend. Because, you see, its not about one vegetable anymore — it’s about pairing those flavors, putting the Red Bliss, the blues, and the fingerling potatoes together, for example, with a bit of fennel, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.  “Roasted is the new grilled,” says Riehle of the NRA. “It’s one of those trends where what’s old is new again. The different preparation methods are similar to wine and food pairings, the pairing of the preparation method with the food item.”

A veteran consultant to the foodservice industry says “Roasted is a trend because you are not adding any fat to the process and it is also a word that has a positive connotation with consumers. The consumer knows that there is no doubt how the chef prepared it. It’s a well known, familiar term.”

Operators are embracing caramelized roasted and fire roasted vegetables in large measure because the consumer is seeking healthier alternatives.

“I think we’re all getting reacquainted with how delicious vegetables are when they’re roasted,” says RH’s Bellamy. “We’re not only seeing root vegetables such as beets, carrots and parsnips but also squash, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. I say, ‘Yay’

For further evidence, read . . .

Roasted Vegetables a Hot Commodity

Roasted to Perfection

Recipe Evidence:

Garlic Roasted Vegetable Ziti Rigati

Roasted Fall Vegetables


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Debra OlsenIn fact, say it over and over again, because potatoes are creeping back onto our plates. But, they are healthier and more interesting, and — if you’ve noticed — more likely to be sweet potatoes than anything else. This is one of those vegetables that is big enough to call out on its own as a top flavor trend. “Potatoes have become a lot like apples,” Riehle of the NRA, says. “There are a lot of differences between the varieties. And when you start seeing sweet potato fries in so many quick casual chains you know it has gone mainstream.” Debra Olson, senior manager of recipe development of
Golden Corral, says potatoes of all varieties are ubiquitous throughout Golden Corral’s system. Aside from mashed Olson says the chain menus a sweet potato casserole, several types of potato salad, a smoky cheese potato bake, hash browns, a potato and onion skillet as well as a cheddar stuffed potato. “Our sweet potato casserole that we serve is very popular with our guests. We bake this dish with a streusel topping. When the guests see the sweet potatoes it makes a great visual because it is very bright and colorful.” Bob Karisny, vice president for menu strategy and innovation at Taco John’s International concurs about the popularity of sweet potatoes. “Sweet potatoes definitely are gathering a lot of attention. We have done a lot of work with them and other chains are considering fried sweet potato items,” Karisny says. “I think right now the industry is trying to figure out how the consumer wants to see it. Do they want to see it as a healthy menu option or the way they see them at Thanksgiving with sweet dips. The American people have a love affair with sweet things.”

For further evidence, read . . .

Sweet Potatoes the Trendy Food Pick for 2010

Shocking News: Zapping Potatoes Makes Them Healthier

New Transgenic Potato Has Pumped Up Protein

A New Potato That’s Really New!

Recipe Evidence:

Creole Kick Sweet Potato Fries

Sweet Potato Fries with a Trio of Dips


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Travis SmithThe new whole grain rice blends are shaking up the side of the plate with fancy risottos and new strains. Black rice, red rice, all of a sudden, it seems, there is a plethora of new varieties. Even the white rice is better-for-you rice. If white rice has always been your white bread staple at the dinner table, be prepared to embrace the new grains. Golden Corral’s Olson says the chain menus several varieties of rice dishes including white rice and Bourbon Street chicken, rice pilaf, wild rice, fried pagoda rice, and Mexican rice. “Our customers love to see the fried rice being prepared at the wok station right in
front of them. It adds to the ambience,” she says. “Consumers are becoming more aware of healthy food choices including the benefits gained from whole grains that are found in rice and rice blends such as brown rice, wild rice and quinoa,” says Travis Smith, who is the Executive Chef for One Ski Hill Place and Breckenridge Mountain Dining in Colorado.

For further evidence, read . . .

Black Rice: Meet the Latest Superfood

Rice On the Rise in the USA

Black Rice Getting White Hot

Recipe Evidence:

Black Walnut Wild Rice

Pumpkin-Walnut Risotto


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It may be nostalgia, it may be wanderlust — whatever the reason, people love to know the food’s history. And side dishes are just full of great stories and regional influences. A great example is coleslaw. It’s a true American creation that is currently being piled on everything. But keep going, because you get succotash from the Midwest, fried green tomatoes and okra from the South. “Americans love regional,” says food consultant and journalist, Pam Parseghian. “American Regional plays into the whole idea of fresh and local. It is comforting and it is very familiar. Dishes like succotash definitely brings a diner’s mind to a certain part of the country and diners are embracing that.” Parseghian also thinks that chefs enjoy using the regional menu items to make a statement. “I think chefs like working with what’s regional because it’s tied to wherever their food comes from. These side dishes use ingredients of wherever the chefs are located.”

We think the interest in regional comes from the new awareness of food and interest in trying new flavors, wherever they come from.  

For further evidence, read . . .

The Global Flavor Curve: American Is the New Ethnic

American Regional Cuisine Served from a Truck

Recipe Evidence:

Fried Green Tomatoes


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People may no longer have root cellars for the safekeeping of root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, rutabagas, and parsnips, but these subterranean vegetables have gained newfound respect in recent years. No longer relegated to cold-weather-only status, root veggies are now available year-round and appreciated for their hearty flavor, versatility — and, oh yeah, the price is right for these tough economic times. The bright colored varieties, especially, are sought out for their nutritional bounty. Taco John’s Karisny says Americans are getting more adventurous when it comes to root vegetables. “Looking further underground we will start to see more of vegetables such as parsnips and rutabagas. We are not a society that is connected to bitter flavors but we are definitely getting more adventurous in that area. I always go into the grocery stores and watch what people are buying. I use that as a barometer and the consumer is starting to connect with these root vegetables.”

For further evidence, read . . .

Getting Back to Our Roots

“Flying Pans” Chefs on the Virtues of Root Vegetables

Recipe Evidence:

Sweet Potato Fries with Apricot-Dijon Dipping Sauce

Pickled Beets with Eggs


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Over the years we’ve embraced ethnic main dishes to the point of fully acclimating them into the American menu. Well, now we’re beginning to notice those things on the side. A creamy fresh corn side dish like Creole-style corn maque choux, might just steal the show from the shrimp main dish. Are we going back to that favorite Mexican restaurant for the enchiladas, or the spiced bean and rice? Is it the sushi or the edamame that’s turning heads at the new Asian place? Perhaps we still want the Midwestern beef steak at the center of the plate but now we just might ask for a Caribbean rice medley instead of the loaded baked potato. Aimee Harvey, an editor with Technomic says ethnic is often synonymous with flavor. “Ethnic sides are flourishing because the interest in different types of global foods and bolder flavors continues to grow as a whole. I think that a lot of consumers like the idea of a little bit of ethnic food that packs a punch of flavor, and a smaller item like a side can do that. You can eat them in a few bites and they’re highly flavorful.” Harvey adds that the smaller sized items give consumers a low-risk method to try something new. Johnson & Wales’ Donne says, “I feel that culinarians and chefs are really beginning to see this country as a cultural mosaic as opposed to the melting pot mentality of years ago. Our mosaic is a beautiful portrait of culture and foods with presentations from all over the world.” One Ski Hill Place’s Smith serves up a variety of ethnic sides at his resort destinations. “We do lots of tapas and other ethnic sides at our Breckenridge Ski Resort restaurants, especially our new “Ski Hill Grill,” “T-Bar,” and “Sevens,” our global bistro concept.

For further evidence, read . . .

Goya Reaching Out Beyond Latino Segment with Market Push for Sides and Seasonings

Mexico Seeks Official UNESCO Recognition of Its Cuisine

Recipe Evidence:

Coconut Vegetable Curry

Asian Vegetable Stir-Fry with Sesame Chili Orange Sauce


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In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re all trying to live healthier lives. So we’ve pushed protein to the side and elevated, well, the side. As that happens, the side dishes grow in variety and stature. Heirloom tomatoes are called out by brand. Brussels sprouts find a new identity in top white linen tablecloth restaurants. Fine dining restaurants and entire cities (San Francisco, for one) have embraced the Meatless Monday concept. And many, many restaurants are now serving significantly smaller meat portions  — because customers are asking for them. Industry consultant Malcolm Knapp says there is a slight uptick in vegetarian dishes on menus. “Vegetarian dishes make a statement that you can eat healthy here.” Parseghian says there are other incentives for operators to reduce protein portions on menus. “Restaurants need to be more careful about portion sizes of protein and a very easy place to cut back is side dishes. The restaurant community is getting ready for federally mandated calorie disclosure on menus. A lot of chefs are thinking about that right now.” 

For further evidence, read . . .

Meatless Monday Gains Momentum

Betty Crocker Gets a Vegan Makeover

Recipe Evidence:

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon


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 These days it’s all about purple cauliflower, purple potatoes, and corn. Plus, carrots in assorted colors in addition to orange. Consumers are learning that brightly colored fruits and vegetables are often the healthiest — loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients. Chefs and restaurateurs love the visual interest these deeply-hued sides add to the plate, as well as their nutritional benefits. “I think the first attraction that consumers have toward colorful foods is that it looks and feels healthy,” says Parseghian. “People definitely eat with their eyes first. It’s a cliché but it sure is true. Color makes the restaurant’s dishes pop.”

For further evidence, read . . .

Picking Foods By Color a Bright Idea

The Color Purple: A Fashionable Food


As NRA’s Riehle points out, “The trends cycle has really been shortened. From fine dining the trends, including side dishes, can cascade down much more quickly. Restaurants have become the place where customers try new dishes, particularly if it is something they have not been exposed to.

At home can’t compare with what customers can get in restaurants. This really drives the retail side and what people buy. Very seldom do you see it going the other way.”

IFMA’s Oberkfell says that innovative side dishes are a sure-fire way to beat your competition. “Innovation remains the best way to beat your competitors and stay ahead. You are going to see manufacturers provide more focus in this area without a doubt.” 


View our Side Dish Trends video.


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