By Kathryn McLean

December is known as the holiday season, but whether you’re celebrating a holiday or not you’re still going to eat dinner. So why not make your side dishes a little more special?

If you’re planning a holiday meal, contributing to a family buffet or making an everyday dinner for your own household, consider upgrading your side dishes with just a few simple additions.

First of all, are there both vegetarians and meat eaters in the group?

When there are vegetarians, resist the urge to add bacon, salami, shredded chicken, gravy, beef broth, shrimp, etc. to your dish.

Instead of cooking a rice or grain dish in chicken broth, use vegetable broth.

Brussels sprouts and broccoli are popular with bacon or pancetta, but again, consider the diets of others who are joining you. Omit the bacon and simply steam those veggies and toss with olive oil and/or a favourite spice mix.

Offering a vegetarian-friendly side dish means more options on the table for those who don’t eat meat. Meat eaters can enjoy a vegetarian dish, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

What else can you do to change up your side dishes?

Try simple add-ins to your favourite vegetables and grains. Mashed potatoes are popular on their own, but you can incorporate many additional ingredients to change it up. Consider sauteed onions, or chopped fresh chives or green onions.

Grated cheese will melt beautifully into the warm potatoes. Chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, chives and sage all pair well with potatoes, as well as quinoa or couscous.

Divide the pot of mashed potatoes into two dishes and stir the add-ins to only one dish if you’re not sure how it will go over.

A dried herb mix or a spice mix will also offer a new taste with minimal effort. Most herbs (fresh or dried), as well as prepared spice mixes and bottled condiments, can easily be added to vegetable dishes. Add any herb to any vegetable: there’s no wrong combination, just try what seems right to you.

And consider zaatar, garam masala, chili garlic sauce, kimchi, jerk seasoning packets, “all-purpose” seasoning packets, gochujang, and Italian or Greek dry herb mixes.

Take a fresh look at the spice section of the grocery store, or within your own cabinet. Adding a couple spoonfuls of a prepared seasoning or condiment to cooked vegetables will instantly create a new dish.

Nuts and seeds can also make an ordinary dish special. Maybe add chopped dry fruit.

Steamed or roasted root vegetables like carrot, parsnip, turnip, potato, sweet potato or beets can be topped with chopped nuts or seeds. Try adding walnuts or pecans, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, or a mix of smaller seeds like poppy seeds, sesame seeds and flax.

Simply roast or boil the veggies until tender, drizzle with olive oil, and top with nuts or seeds. The crunch of the topping will complement the softer cooked vegetables as you eat them.

Finally, to further upgrade your side dishes, be sure to serve them in actual dishes or bowls. Not the pots they are cooked in!