We all want our guests to feel comfortable when we host a party. Maybe that’s why comfort foods like chips and dips, burgers, and wings are so popular at festive gatherings. Unfortunately, comfort foods can also be boring and unhealthy.
Katie Lee Joel, author of The Comfort Table (Simon Spotlight, 2008), has found a way around this dilemma. “I have a new definition of comfort food,” she says. “I call it ‘conscious consumption’—consider how your food was raised and how it got to your plate.” That translates into mostly vegetarian, mostly local, fresh fare that only seems indulgent. “Think of a sweet potato,” says Joel, by way of example. “It tastes so good cut into wedges and roasted. Sprinkle some chile powder over it and squeeze some lime juice on top. No one will think, ‘Oh, this is a healthy dish,’ they’ll just think it’s delicious.”
As my son’s first birthday approached, I decided to follow Joel’s advice. Thanks to her suggestions and tips from other experts, the celebration was the healthiest, greenest party I’ve ever thrown—and by making fruits, vegetables, and fresh-baked whole-grain breads the centerpiece, I ended up saving a bundle. Here’s how I did it.
Expert tip: Creating a vegetarian menu is an easy way to keep your festivities nourishing and within your budget. “I serve vegetarian chili with a toppings bar where guests can add avocado, onions, and fresh salsa,” says Joel, adding that her guests love her gatherings because the food is great but they never overeat.
What I did: At my son’s birthday party I piled platters and bowls with salads that featured seasonal fruits, vegetables, and grains—and they were so tasty nobody missed the chips I didn’t serve.
Try Something New
Expert tip: Get people talking by serving foods in unexpected ways, or by combining familiar foods with ingredients your guests may not have tasted before, suggests Elliott Prag, a chef and instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. “I like to tell guests the story of my unique ingredients.”
What I did: At my bash, I served up a simple salad made from baby lettuce and fresh eggs tossed with a honey dressing—all from my neighbor who keeps bees and chickens in the back of her tiny purple cottage near my house in Pennsylvania.
Spice It Up
Expert tip: Experiment with flavor combinations. “You should have a bit of every sensation—salty, sweet, spicy, and sour,” says Prag, who likes to serve a unique Asian tofu salad made with chile paste, lime juice, soy sauce, and green onion. “It excites the palate with so many flavors.”
What I did: By grilling lemon slices and artichoke hearts and adding them to farfalle tossed with fresh mint, feta, and a drizzle of Sicilian olive oil, I transformed a pasta salad into a distinctive dish.
Serve Food In Stages
Expert tip: “Don’t present everything at once,” says Lisa Talamini, R.N., vice president of research and program innovation at Jenny Craig. “It’s more interesting to slowly reveal what you’re serving—and it keeps the party’s energy up.” Talamini also likes to use produce as containers. “Orange ‘shells’ can hold citrus- infused yogurt dip, or a pineapple ‘boat’ can hold grilled pineapple cubes and grape tomatoes.”
What I did: I served water and iced tea from repurposed wine bottles and presented a cheese plate on a bed of grape leaves from my garden.
Go Easy on the Alcohol
Expert tip: If you want your guests to eat well and get home safely, serve lighter cocktails that complement, and don’t compete with, your food. “Serve wine spritzers made with three ounces of either red or white wine, three ounces of sparkling water, and a few frozen berries as an edible garnish,” says Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan and a nutritional researcher at Pennsylvania State University. Prag rolls out an array of beautifully colored iced and hot teas—his favorite is hibiscus.
What I did: I offered locally made cider and chilled bottles of celery- and green tea-flavored sodas, and (nonalcoholic) birch beer.
TRIM YOUR WASTE
Follow these tips to make your party healthier for your guests and the planet.
►USE FOOD FOR CONTAINERS. Put dips in cabbage leaves to add visual excitement to your table, says Lisa Talamini. If you have a compost pile, the “containers” can be recycled instead of tossed out.
►BUY REUSABLE DINNERWARE. Keep plastic out of landfills and oceans by using durable dinnerware and glasses.
►PUT LEFTOVERS IN GLASS CONTAINERS WITH LIDS. Use wax paper instead of plastic wrap, which can’t be recycled. If you end up with large quantities of leftovers, consider donating to a local soup kitchen, food bank, or food-rescue organization.
Create a platter of fresh-picked fixings that cannot be ignored.
►CHOOSE UNEXPECTED VEGGIES. Mix green beans with yellow and purple or even spotted wax varieties, for example. Instead of plain red radishes, look for the candy-striped version. Orange carrots are fine—but purple and yellow carrots are sweet and stunning.
►BLANCH OUT. Some vegetables are tastier—and a little sweeter—when blanched. Broccoli, cauliflower, even asparagus and green beans benefit from being plunged into boiling water for a few minutes, then “shocked” in icy cold water. Pat dry before serving.
►DO A DIFFERENT DIP. Hummus, herbed olive oil, white bean purée with rosemary, or yogurt and curry dips are healthy and interesting ways to add punch to your platter.
►HEAT THINGS UP. Asparagus, Brussels sprouts, yam wedges, fingerling potatoes, shallots, parsnips, peppers, and baby carrots hold up beautifully under roasting (400˚F for about 30 to 40 minutes). Drizzle with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.
►MAKE A COMPELLING PRESENTATION. Group vegetables on the plate by variety, color, shape, and texture for a colorful visual impact. Accentuate contrasts by arranging cherry tomatoes next to asparagus spears next to bright yellow pepper strips next to sliced daikon radishes.