A. Elizabeth Sloan

While one-dish meals, big bowls, contemporary casseroles, and skillet dishes continue to put the squeeze on side dishes, these favorite meal components are evolving into some new, novel, and highly sustainable market segments. In addition, the strong culinary and nutrition trend to high protein, the resurgence of slow-cooked meats and roasts, the popularity of rotisserie chicken, and a return to simplistic in-home food preparation will fuel the demand for creative companion products for everyday cuts of meat, poultry, and fish.

Vegetables—the most frequently served side dish—were part of one-third of in-home suppers in 2000, according to NPD Group’s National Eating Trends Service. Potatoes (17.8%), salad (11.7%), bread (8.3%), fruit (3.4%), rice (3.2%), rolls (2.4%), chips (2.4%), macaroni and cheese (1.7%), and crackers (1.5%) also made the “Top 10” list. According to Bon Appetit’s 2002 annual survey, rice is America’s favorite side dish (33%), followed by roasted potatoes (32%), mashed potatoes (30%), and baked potatoes (24%). Those under age 35 are the most partial to mashed. Our favorite vegetable—although not the most frequently eaten because of price—is asparagus (65%), followed by tomatoes (49%) and broccoli (38%). The least favorite is egg-plant.

Protein foods are enjoying a tremendous renaissance. Protein is a mega-trend in the nation’s Top 200 Chain restaurants, according to the Chain Account Menu Survey. Meat, poultry, and seafood have increased by 17.5% on menus from 1998 to 2001. In addition, the weakening economy and post-9/11 concerns are creating an upturn in simple at-home food preparation. According to a recent Good Housekeeping cooking survey, chicken breasts, legs, burgers, chops, and steaks—especially grilled items—are an integral part of Americans’ at-home dinner routine. Marketers would do well to create specific complementary products for these items that are simply baked, broiled, or skillet prepared during the week.

According to Bon Appetit’s survey, America’s favorite casual weekday suppers are chicken dishes (51%), pasta with sauce (50%), steak/chops (36%), and fish (33%). Nearly half of respondents say they grill once or twice a week, 16% two or three times, and 8% more than three times a week. When it comes to elegant entrees for special occasions, roasts are king, especially for those age 40 and older. America’s favorites are roast beef (39%), roast pork (39%), steak (32%), and fish (32%).

And sides aren’t always on the side any more. Sometimes they’re under, over, or simply all around the meal. There’s rice encrusted snapper, pork served on hot German potato salad, veal over spinach, and even potato-topped pot pies. Any menu part is fair game for traditional side-dish ingredients. Stuffed potato poppers are streaming onto appetizer menus; crisp potato pancakes, molded pasta, and mini-bowls formed of fried rice hold bite-sized savory treats; and heavily spiced rice, potatoes, and root vegetables have become fillings for gnocchi, crispy spring rolls, stuffed roasts, and more.

Traditional side dishes are being upscaled, too. Think ethnic additions, signature ingredients, and new forms and flavors. Underutilized forms, such as acini de peppe, peppercorn-shaped pasta, and trotolle, inch-wide twisted pasta, and new provocative names are giving menus a new feel. Green chile and jalapeño jack macaroni and cheese topped with fried onions bring an old-time favorite close to the border. Truffle au gratin macaroni, made with gruyere and shaved truffles, gives fine comfort dining new appeal as a new generation of sides dishes emerges. Watch for colorful potato and root vegetable purees; chutneys, compotes, and salsas; flans; risotto cakes; quiches/egg layering, tabouleh, couscous, sweet potato fries, and the return of mini-soufflés and corn puddings. There will be more unusual varieties of beans, especially fava beans, Chinese and other ethnic noodles, and global varieties and colors of potatoes to add intrigue to traditional fare.

As side dishes become more creative, tasting menus and appetizers continue to grow, and the countercurrent demand for meatless meals escalates, it is not surprising that many leading high-end and chain restaurants are offering side dishes as both main entrees and a la carte dishes, addressing Americans’ desire to chose and tailor their menu at a whim. In addition, many cutting-edge eateries are allowing their patrons to mix and match sides. For example, if you want the fava beans and artichokes from the sea bass with your veal, it’s yours! Morton’s of Chicago and Ruth’s Chris steak houses offer a variety of side dishes as well as a choice of cooking methods and sauces, and seafood restaurants are following suit. Commander’s Palace in New Orleans offers its sides as main dishes. Not surprisingly, more and more good sides will work their way to the “center of the plate”!

by A. ELIZABETH SLOAN
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.