Tips and Recipes For A Healthy Dinner Party
26 Jan 2015 Posted by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND
Healthy Dinner Party Menu:
– Raw vegetables with garlic-white bean hummus
– Mixed green salad with fresh herbs, fennel, orange and citrus vinaigrette
– Braised Chicken and Vegetables with White Wine
– Fresh Berries with Balsamic Glaze and Maple-Almond Yogurt
Serving healthy foods at a dinner party is not something my grandmother (or anyone else in the 1960’s, for that matter) would have done. Back then, rich, heavy meals were a dinner party staple – and guests were pampered with an overload of creamy, fatty “special occasion” foods.
I know this because I inherited my grandmother’s recipe box – which provides a real glimpse into the past. Tucked inside (along with 16 recipes for cheesecake) were several menus and shopping lists for dinner parties, for which she was famous. The meals were heavy on meat, starch, butter and cream – and her shopping list always included cigarettes. How times have changed.
Whenever I host a dinner party, I find that guests really do appreciate the light, fresh, healthy fare that I like to serve. And, they do leave the table feeling special – but not stuffed.
The time and effort that you devote to preparing a meal for friends is a gift in itself – and what better gift than a meal that’s both delicious and healthy?
Tips for Healthy, Special Dinner Parties
The food you serve is, of course, the highlight of your healthy dinner party. Here are some tips for making your healthy dinner party meals feel extra-special.
Dishes with an array of colors look particularly attractive and special, so include plenty of healthy, colorful fruits and vegetables in your meal. I like to start off with salads because there’s such an array of greens and fruits that you can include, but simple soups – like a carrot or broccoli puree – also make a colorful start to your meal. I generally end with a fruit-based dessert – even something as simple a mixed fruit salad can be dazzling.
A few surprise ingredients.
It’s amazing how the addition of an unexpected ingredient or two can make an everyday dish feel more special. Roasted carrots look more festive when they’re topped with a sprinkle of bright-green pistachios – and you’re providing some healthy omega-3 fats along the way. Adding some paper-thin pear slices to your salad takes it from routine to restaurant-worthy, and you’re also sneaking some extra fruit into the menu. A few dried currants in your rice, a handful of fresh herbs in your salad, a coating of sesame seeds on your fish – it’s the little things that show you care.
Even simple dishes can look special with a spectacular presentation. One time for a dinner party, I prepared a vegetable-whole grain dish that was baked inside of a pumpkin. The recipe was actually very simple, but when I brought the whole pumpkin to the table and lifted the lid, everyone “oohed and aahed”. If you’re plating each person’s dish, and have several items on the plate, leave room around each item to make them distinct from one another (this helps with portion control, too!). Another restaurant trick is to show off your grilling skills by placing your perfectly cooked fish or chicken on top of a small pool of sauce rather than covering it up. Then add a sprig of fresh basil or a shower of minced parsley to dress up the plate.
When you go out to a nice restaurant, you notice not only the food, but the surroundings, too. Soft music (or festive, if that’s the mood you’re in!), gentle lighting or candlelight, shiny silverware, sparkling glasses, attractive linens, flowers – all help to make a meal feel extra-special. So take some time to set the mood. Your guests will feel pampered, and when the mood is right, people tend to relax and really enjoy their food. When the pace is a little slower, your guests will linger at the table and visit – and it’s always nice to take the time to slow down and enjoy one another’s company.
Healthy Dinner Party Menu
When I’m planning my healthy dinner party menu, I like to make things that don’t require a lot of last-minute fussing in the kitchen – that way, I can enjoy the party, too.
I don’t go heavy on appetizers, because I want guests to still have an appetite when they sit down for the meal. I generally start out with a fresh salad and for the entrée, I often turn to slow-simmering dishes. One-pot meals aren’t difficult to prepare, but their long cooking-times suggest that you that you’ve spent hours cooking something special for your guests. They also make the house smell great. And, you don’t have to prepare an entrée and separate side dishes – so they’re a great time-saver.
If you were to come to my house for dinner, the meal below is something I would very likely make for you. We’ll start off light with an appetizer of raw vegetables and a delicious twist on hummus, then begin the meal with a beautiful mixed green salad with a few “special” ingredients. For the entrée, we’ll have a one-pot braised chicken and vegetables in white wine, and we finish out with a fresh berry parfait.
Healthy Dinner Party Menu for Six
Appetizer: Raw vegetables with garlic-white bean hummus
This hummus is made with cannellini beans which are mild in flavor and very tender, so the texture is super-smooth. I like to pump up the flavor with a lot of lemon and garlic.
- 2 cans (15-ounce, 425g) cannellini or small white beans
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, lightly smashed with the side of a knife
- juice of one lemon
- ½ cup (12g) fresh basil leaves
- ¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
- freshly ground pepper
- Fresh vegetables for dipping: sliced cucumber, carrot, bell peppers; cherry tomatoes; celery stalks; lightly steamed asparagus spears, broccoli florets
Drain liquid from beans, rinse under cold water, and drain thoroughly. Put beans, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, basil, salt and pepper into blender or food processor, and blend until thoroughly smooth. Serve with vegetable dippers.
Notes: For a really attractive presentation, I like to serve the hummus in a bowl made from a small, hollowed out head of purple cabbage (or you could use a bell pepper). Put the cabbage bowl in the center of your serving plate, then surround it with your vegetable dippers.
Also, before juicing the lemon for this recipe, cut off the skin with a vegetable peeler and set aside in the refrigerator. You’ll use this lemon zest as a topping for your dessert.
Mixed green salad with fresh herbs, fennel, orange and citrus vinaigrette
Everyday salads are usually just some mixed greens with dressing, but adding a few unusual ingredients – fresh dill, shaved fennel and orange slices – makes this salad dinner-party worthy.
For the salad dressing:
- 1/3 cup (80ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon sugar, honey, or agave syrup
- 1 teaspoon grainy mustard
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For the salad:
- 12 cups (350g) mixed baby lettuces and greens (try to find mixes with an array of colors and textures – lettuces, kale, spinach, radicchio, frisee). Wash, rinse, and chill several hours ahead, so the leaves will be as crisp possible.
- 2 fennel bulbs, tops removed, bulbs sliced paper-thin across the grain
- 2 fresh oranges, peeled, cut in half and thinly sliced
- 1 Tablespoon fresh dill leaves
Place all dressing ingredients in the bottom of a salad bowl large enough to hold the salad ingredients and mix well with a spoon or whisk. Add lettuces, shaved fennel, orange slices and dill. Toss thoroughly and serve immediately.
Braised Chicken and Vegetables with White Wine
Chicken in a white wine sauce tastes “fancy” – but it’s easy to make. I prefer white wine for this dish, although you can use red if you like. I like to load it up with lots of vegetables so that it’s a true one-dish meal. If you have them, this is really nice when served in wide, shallow bowls. You might want to serve this with some good, crusty French bread – I do!
- 6 chicken breast halves, bone-in, skin removed
- ½ cup flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 12 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 2” (5cm) lengths
- 1 yellow onion, peeled, cut in half and thinly sliced
- 4 stalks celery, cut into 2” (5cm) lengths
- 2 leeks, white part only, cut into 1” (2.5cm) lengths
- 12 large white or brown mushrooms, cut into quarters
- 1 shallot, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 2 cups (500ml) chicken stock
- 2 cups (500ml) dry white wine
- 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
- ¼ cup (15g) chopped Italian parsley
Pat chicken pieces dry with a paper towel. Chop each breast half into two pieces. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, pepper and paprika.
In a large heavy casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Dredge the chicken pieces on all sides in the flour mixture, then brown in small batches one each side(if you crowd the chicken pieces, they won’t brown). Remove the chicken pieces from the casserole and set aside.
Add the carrots, onions, celery, leeks, mushrooms and shallot to the casserole and stir for 5-7 minutes to allow the vegetables to soften. Add the chicken stock and white wine. Bring liquid to a boil, cook and stir to loosen any browned bits on the bottom of the casserole. Add tarragon, then arrange the chicken pieces on top of the vegetables. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the casserole, and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through. Garnish with fresh parsley.
Fresh Berries with Balsamic Glaze and Maple-Almond Yogurt
This dessert is simple, but it makes a statement. Trust me on the balsamic vinegar – its flavor isn’t as sharp as other vinegars, and when cooked into a syrup with a little sugar, it brings out the sweetness of the fruit. If fresh berries aren’t available, you can simply thaw out some frozen ones. This is good made with peaches, too.
- 1 cup (240ml) balsamic vinegar
- 4 Tablespoons brown sugar
- 6 cups fresh mixed berries
- 2 cups (450g)nonfat, plain Greek-style yogurt
- ¼ cup (60ml) maple syrup
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- thinly sliced zest from one lemon
In a small saucepan, combine balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. Place over medium heat, bring to a simmer, then lower heat to low and let simmer for 20 minutes or so, stirring a few times, until vinegar mixture is reduced by about half. The mixture should be syrupy. Pour balsamic glaze into a small bowl, and set aside at room temperature to cool. Can be made ahead of time.
Gently stir together the yogurt, maple syrup and almond extract. Can be made up to a few hours ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
When ready to serve, divide the fruit among 6 serving dishes. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the berries, then top with the maple-yogurt. Sprinkle with lemon zest and serve.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.
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