Serving healthy dishes at a dinner party can be tricky, especially if your guests have very different tastes or are following diverse health regimens. But choosing party food becomes less of a challenge when you follow a few simple guidelines and create healthy recipes that will please every palate. Choose cuisines that are high on flavor, and you and your guests will enjoy delicious dishes that just happen to be healthy. These steps make party prep easier and the party food tastier.
1. Keep it simple and fresh
The closer the foods are to their natural state when you serve them, the healthier they are, says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, a nutritionist in Los Angeles and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Start with wholesome, fresh ingredients — preferably seasonal food— and don’t cook them in fat or dress them with sauces and creams, she stresses.
For example, build your appetizer tray around fresh vegetables that you’ve simply washed, peeled, and cut into bite-size pieces. Select veggies of different colors, such as bell peppers, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, and snap peas, and serve them with a dip of hummus and whole wheat crackers.
2. Think “do ahead dishes”
Another reason you want to keep it simple is that complicated dishes require a lot of prep time. “You want to be socializing with your guests, not stuck in the kitchen slaving away,” says Beth Thayer, MS, RD, of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Decide on the menu from your collection of healthy recipes and prepare as much as you can the day before or earlier, suggests Thayer.
3. Keep it colorful
Having three or more different colors in your meal can brighten up the room and be part of the décor, Thayer says. But more importantly, doing so ensures that you’re providing your dinner party guests with a variety of vitamins and minerals.
You can do with fruit what you did with the veggies — cut up melons and seasonal fruits, such as apples, pears, grapes, and bananas. Fruit can be an appetizer or served toward the end of the meal as a sweet and healthy dessert. Sprinkle fruit chunks with nuts, such as almonds and walnuts — eaten in moderation, nuts provide fiber and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Plan smaller portions
Here’s how to calculate how much you’ll need to serve each guest: “You should figure about 10 to 15 bite-size appetizers or hors d’oeuvres per person,” Thayer says. An appetizer, soup or salad, main course with a vegetable, brown rice, or whole grain pasta, and dessert is more than enough. Speaking of portion sizes, sinful fare doesn’t have to be off the menu as long as it’s in moderation. Even that rich chocolate cake for dessert won’t ruin anyone’s healthy diet if the portion is small.
5. Think lean meat, chicken, or fish for the main course
When you go over your guest list, you might want to ask attendees if they have any preferences, food allergies, or religious or cultural adherence, suggest Thayer. Are any guests vegetarians? Knowing what your guests like and being sensitive to their needs will make your party food more appealing to them. If you are serving meat, stick with leaner cuts. Or opt for chicken or fish that can be grilled with herbs and little, if any, fat. “I like to offer my guests a choice and may have a salad or a pasta station so they can make their own meals the way they like them,” Thayer says.
A healthy way to serve chicken, fish, or lean meat is with a fruit salsa. Buy it by the jar or make your own. Here is one of Giancoli’s favorite recipes: Peel and chop a large mango. Toss the mango with 2 tablespoons of finely diced red and yellow peppers, 1 tablespoon of minced Serrano chile, and lime juice to taste. Each recipe serves four, so multiply by the number of people attending your dinner party.
6. Provide containers for leftovers
If you have take-home containers, you can give your guests the leftovers. They won’t feel obligated to overeat, which can be unhealthy, and when they heat them up at home, they will be reminded of the good time they had, Thayer says.
Don’ts for a Healthy Dinner Party
1. Don’t force guests to eat what you’ve made
If a guest doesn’t want to try something, don’t make him or her feel bad about it. Do consider making copies of your recipes for your guests — people like to know what they’re eating and may discover something they never had before.
2. Never talk about the calories or fat in a food
“It can be tacky and the food should be enjoyed,” says Thayer. “If you’ve labeled the food or given your guests the recipes, they’ll do the talking for you.”
3. Don’t use cream, butter, or oil-based sauces
Giancoli says, “You can do so much with vegetable- and fruit-based sauces or tomatoes, olives, and capers. You don’t have to add fat and calories with creams and butter.”