A warm pot of chili makes a hearty centerpiece for a comforting, versatile meal. You can make chili with just a few relatively simple and inexpensive ingredients, which makes it a great meal choice for family dinners and buffet-style parties alike. Customize your chili dinner menu by choosing breads and side dishes that complement your favorite chili recipe, along with a tasty dessert. Serve any leftover chili the next day with new sides for a whole new meal experience.
Traditional chilis consists of meat, beans, chile peppers, and other seasonings that depend on who's cooking. Contemporary versions of this stew-like dish include vegetarian chili and Cincinatti chili, which uses spices like cinnamon and cloves. If you're serving a large group of people, consider serving one pot of traditional chili and one low-fat, meatless variety for vegetarian or health-conscious guests. Use your favorite tried and true recipes or find one on the International Chili Society's webpage. Since most chilis store well, you can make large batches ahead of time to serve your busy family throughout the week. If you're in a hurry, pick up canned chili at the grocery store for a quick, versatile meal kids love.
Toppings can make canned chili taste homemade and add an extra something special to your favorite chili recipe. For a chili dish sure to please the kids, add a layer of corn chips to the bottom of each bowl before you ladle in the chili, top it with shredded cheese, then add more chips. Sour cream and cheese are two tried-and-true toppings for chili, but for a healthier way to add creamy texture, try avocado slices or plain greek yogurt instead. Other topping ideas include crushed tortilla chips, creamy ranch dressing, oyster crackers, salsa and scallions.
Like soup, a bowl of chili feels more complete with the right kind of bread. Cornbread is the preferred companion for Chili in Texas and the Southwest. Since cornbread does not require any rising time, you can whip up a loaf from scratch fairly quickly, or buy a boxed mix for fresh bread in a pinch. Biscuits also complement chili and are made even more impressive with the addition of mix-ins like shredded cheddar cheese, chopped ham, and sliced jalapeño peppers. A warm loaf of home-baked bread is always a welcome companion for chili, but if you don't have time to bake, pick up fresh bread at your local bakery and serve in thick slices.
For an easy, healthy side dish with a homemade touch, enhance a bagged salad with extra veggies and herbs that complement the flavors of your chili, such as bell peppers, corn, tomatoes and cilantro. Toss with a zesty fiesta dressing or serve a few different dressings on the side. You can also serve easy-to-cook grains, like quinoa, rice and couscous alongside your chili. Serve a pot of noodles on the side and let kids mix them right into their chili bowl for "chili mac" or "spaghetti chili."
Continue the comfort food theme of your dinner by serving a familiar dessert like brownies, or a quintessentially American dish such as apple pie or peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Desserts with a Southwestern flair also go well with a chili dinner, like sweet corn pudding, flan or dessert empanadas, which you can find in many Latin American bakeries and grocery stores. Toss sliced fruits together in a bowl with a dash of cinnamon for a simple, healthy finale to your meal.
Sarah Badger is a certified pilates and group fitness instructor, writer and dance teacher. Her work has appeared in "Dance Spirit" magazine and several literary journals. Badger earned her bachelor's degree in English and religious studies from Marymount Manhattan College, and currently owns a dance and fitness studio in upstate New York.