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Is it a main dish or a side dish?


Is it a main dish or a side dish?

Question: Is it a main dish or a side dish?

Vegetarian and vegan eating means changing up our ideas about what constitutes a main dish. No longer is meat at the center of your plate. But what should be at the center? Just vegetables? Read on to find out about how to choose whether a dish should be a main dish or a side dish.

Answer: A reader sent me this inquiry:


We are interested in this quinoa and sweet potato salad. Is it served hot, as part of the dinner, or as a salad before we eat our main course? By the descriptions we read, it could be either. Which is it? We would prefer to use it as our "potato" maybe for a Sunday dinner.Thanks, in advance, for your suggestion.

I find that this is a question that many people who are used to a more traditional American-style of eating struggle with when switching to a vegetarian, vegan or just a more vegetable-heavy diet.

Traditionally, an American-style meal consists of a main meat item, served alongside a small portion of vegetables (usually prepared very plain) and often a potato dish and a dinner roll. For example, think of a steak served with a baked potato and a side of green beans, or fried chicken with mashed potatoes and a side of corn. The meat item is the main dish and the vegetable is just an afterthought. Keep in mind though, that we usually think of meal as consisting of a protein, a starch and a vegetable item. This holds true with vegetarian and vegan meals as well.

But when cooking vegetarian and vegan meals, the protein is not meat, and it doesn't need to be the centerpiece of the meal. The whole plate gets mixed up!

Most vegetarian and vegan entrees will contain a vegetable, a protein and a starch item all together in one dish, rather than separate them out. For example, a vegetable lasagna with tofu contains a starch (lasagna noodles), vegetables and a protein (tofu). A vegetable stir-fry might contain vegetables and a protein, and is usually paired with a starch (noodles or rice) or a grain.

So, when it comes to vegetarian and vegan meals, just about anything can be turned into a main dish, assuming it contains a balance of vegetables, protein and starch to your liking. And, to specifically answer the question in the case of the sweet potato and quinoa salad, I would serve this as either a main dish for lunch, or a side dish for dinner. To turn it into a main dish for dinner, I'd top it off with some baked tofu or grilled tempeh, just to fill it out a bit more. But then again, it's so incredibly delicious, that I'd likely want to eat a dinner-sized portion!

Still not convinced? Here's some quick tips on how to turn any vegetarian or vegan dish into a full entree:

  • Fill out a light vegetable-heavy dish by adding to it. Baked tofu goes with just about anything, or try adding quinoa or Asian-style noodles.
  • Serve a generous portion of a healthy green salad filled with vegetables and plenty of interesting toppings - nuts, cranberries, artichokes, hearts of palm, or sunflower seeds for example - for a complete healthy meal.
  • Just about anything can be served as an entree, really, if you want it to be, but consider portion sizes. A green salad that's intended to be a complete meal will be much larger than a salad that's intended to be a side dish.


  • See also: Vegetarian dinner ideas
  • See also: High-protein vegetarian entrees
  • See also: All vegetarian recipes


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