How to Create an Easy, Healthy Dinner Party Menu
December 6, 2013
Registered Dietitian Alina Zolotareva shares her tips on how to host a healthy holiday dinner party -- with minimal effort.
A dinner party is the perfect excuse for a casual get-together with friends. It’s a fun way to celebrate the holidays and enjoy a delicious meal without spending a ton on eating out.
The challenge for most of us 20- and 30-somethings lies in finding the time to plan and execute a successful dinner party when we’re all so busy. Having hosted my fair share of dinner parties, I’ve picked up a few useful tips and tricks I’d like to share so you too can put together an easy, quick and healthy dinner party this holiday season.
- Before anything else, you’ll need to know how many people you will be feeding. Set a date and stick to it! Invite your friends 2 weeks ahead of time and ask them to RSVP to avoid last-minute drop-outs.
- Before making any food-related decisions, ask your guests about their food allergies and dietary restrictions. Are they vegetarian? Do they keep Kosher? Are they lactose intolerant? This will avoid last-minute headaches.
- Take 10-15 minutes to actually plan what you would like to put out before heading to the grocery store. Buying stuff on the fly is never a good idea and usually leads to food (and monetary) waste.
- Think about the space you have and how you want to decorate for the occasion. Trimming a tree (or inviting your guests to help trim it) can be a fun pre-dinner activity.
I can relate to the challenges of cramped urban spaces, which leaves many of us without so much as a dining table. If that’s the case, be creative! If you have several side tables, arrange hors d’oeuvres around your apartment to encourage your guests to walk around and mingle. Keep the appetizers and entrées on your kitchen counter, encouraging guests to serve themselves buffet-style. If you aren’t afraid of the floor, throw down some fabrics and pillows in the center of your living room and eat around your coffee table, Turkish-style. It might actually be more fun!
Nothing’s more important than a first impression, so serving great hors d’oeuvres can make a party. But, I find that I never spend more than 5-10 minutes prepping hors d’oeuvres or side dishes. The trick is to keep it simple and make sure you serve a variety of fun, colorful snacks for your guests to munch on.
Crudités with a twist
- Clean and cut up your own fresh fruit and veggie crudité with raw carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, radishes or any other veggies you like. If you have time, stop by a local farmer’s market to pick up something special to throw into the mix. Don’t go crazy with cutting perfect slices and pieces—you can keep the veggies fairly rustic (it’s faster to prep and more fun to eat).
- Every crudité needs a delicious dip. I usually pick one type of dip base and get creative with the flavors! Try a tub of plain hummus, tahini or Greek yogurt and dress it up in a few different ways. Seasonal flavor ideas include Moroccan/Turkish spices, roasted garlic, cinnamon, lemon zest, olives, avocado oil, Sriracha/chili peppers/jalapeños, herbs, or even a simple, homemade cranberry relish for a holiday kick.
- Other fun, easy dip ideas include pomegranate guacamole, salsa, savory nut butters or a homemade apple sauce.
Nuts & fruit
- Liven up the party space with small bowls of nuts and dried fruit. Roasted almonds, shelled peanuts and pistachios add crunch, flavor (and healthy fats) to a holiday party.
- Pair nuts with dried fruit like dates, golden raisins, cranberries and goji berries for an added element of color and a kick of antioxidants.
- Boiled, salted edamame and popcorn (tossed with spices, parmesan, or cinnamon) are also light, healthy bites to add to the dinner party table.
Keep the appetizer elegant and minimalistic, such as a salad with 4-5 ingredients, bruschetta with a cranberry relish or a homemade soup. I usually serve a mixed green or spinach salad with 1-2 kinds of vegetables, chickpeas, pomegranate seeds and -- if you want to get fancy -- some candied nuts and goat cheese. Top with a light and healthy vinegar-based dressing.
For some healthy and delicious appetizer ideas, check out these SPE-certified recipes.
The main course
- My trick to a quick, delicious main that your guests will love is to keep it in one pot. This saves time and space, and eliminates the need for side dishes.
- Some dishes that are easily done in a single pot are stews, casseroles, shepherd’s pie, vegetarian or turkey-meat lasagna, baked ziti, paella, bean chili or gumbo, squash risotto, stuffed peppers, etc. My biggest hit has always been a vegetarian spinach-mushroom lasagna!
- Try to make something you have made before and know how to execute with confidence (no, not cereal). If you really aren’t sure about a recipe, it’s best to try it at least once before-hand to avoid having to order pizza and wings 15 minutes before your party…
- For more healthy and delicious entrée ideas, try these SPE-certified recipes.
A not-so-cheesy plate
- Guests love a good cheese course prior to dessert, so why not throw one in? Stop by an actual cheese shop and try out a couple of local cheeses, paired with local jam or honey. I usually choose one harder cheese (like an aged manchego) and a softer cheese (such as a brie or goat cheese).
- Present your cheeses on a small wooden cutting board with a cheese knife, along with some thinly sliced apple/pear slices, nuts, olives and whole grain crostini. How (ch)easy!
Drinks and dessert
For a healthy, fun, low calorie beverage option for my guests, I like to buy plain seltzer or sparkling water and combine it with lemon/lime slices and fresh or frozen fruit such as pomegranate seeds, cherries and blueberries.
For dessert, I usually put out a fruit bowl for a healthy end to a big dinner. If you are eager to make your own healthy dessert, you’ll find plenty of great recipes here.
After all of the dinner party fun, enlist some friends to help you clean up! It’s a nice opportunity to close the party and to make your guests feel like they contributed to the meal. I personally hate washing dishes, but luckily my friends seem to love it…(thanks, friends!)
Good luck at your next dinner party! Have a happy, healthy holiday season and don’t forget to share some of your own dinner party tips below.
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