At both limited- and full-service restaurants, sides often come with an entrée or in a combo meal and can be more of an afterthought in the minds of foodservice providers and consumers. But sides shouldn’t be overlooked; more than half of consumers order sides at full-service restaurants (FSRs), and at least one third do the same at limited-service restaurants (LSRs).

Exploring patron preferences when it comes to sides reveals opportunities to upscale side options and differentiate offerings, according to Technomic’s “2015 US Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report.”

At Technomic Top 500 LSRs, sides are receiving a healthful makeover. Among the top five leading sides are non-breaded vegetables, deli salads and fruit. These sides, along with bean dishes, also are among the fastest growing at LSRs. Additionally, starch-heavy sides, like breads, pastas and potatoes, are trending down, further emphasizing how operators are switching to more healthy sides.

While some look for healthy options, a portion—especially older consumers—enjoy the comfort of traditional sides. A closer look at the growth of certain ingredients reveals that homestyle sides are trending, with the rise of green beans and barbecue ingredients.

At top-ranked FSRs, the fastest growing side dishes are those with pasta or noodles, attributed to the popularity of macaroni-and-cheese. These sides have seen a 19% growth in operator incidence since 2013, according to the report. Other growing side items are “other potato” dishes (up 12%), like hash browns, au gratin potatoes, home fries, potato chips and potato tots. Potatoes and other vegetables are among the leading ingredients in full-service sides, with asparagus, green beans, sweet-potato fries and hash browns among the top five fastest growing ingredients.

Looking ahead, operators should differentiate their side offerings with unique twists on classics, along with ethnic-inspired ingredients and preparations to set apart their menus.

Across fast-casual, casual-dining and quick-service segments, the premiumization factor of sides is increasing. French fries and potato tots are used as a base to pile on a plethora of ingredients—such as meats, cheeses, vegetables and sauces. For example, RAM Restaurant & Brewery released limited-time Loaded Stuffed Tater Tots filled with Cheddar Jack cheese, hickory-smoked bacon and green onion, and served with roasted tomato-chili aïoli.

Currently, most “loaded” sides feature Latin and American ingredients, but expect operators to leverage the Asian cuisine trend by adding sesame oils, Thai basil and curry sauces.

In FSRs, Technomic predicts side portions will expand, following trends in independent and fine dining. Although 43% of consumers express interest in larger, shareable sides, most sides are still intended for individual consumption. As in LSRs, premiumization will be crucial, along with the housemade positioning, to justify higher price points. Macaroni-and-cheese will be upscaled, with ingredients like lobster, and ethnic-inspired corn dishes, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and seasoned or herbed mashed potatoes will proliferate.

Sides typically have a supporting role when looking at the entire meal, but they can go a long way in satisfying cravings for premiumization and increased value for consumers.