It’s one thing to cook healthy food for yourself, but quite another to keep it healthy for a large group, whether it’s a dinner party, birthday brunch, or holiday event. Here are some tips for hosting a healthy gathering.
Sure, you may have mastered making a healthy plate of food for yourself during the week, but what happens when company comes over? Many people rely on serving big dishes of comfort food when feeding a crowd. While mac and cheese or lasagna may be delicious, they may not be the healthiest food you can offer your guests.
Hosting a healthy meal for a crowd doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality or taste. With careful planning you can serve healthy food that will leave your guests feeling satisfied and energized instead of stuffed and lethargic.
Before you begin to plan your menu, it's helpful to know the dietary restrictions and preferences of your guests.
"Crowd cooking is tricky, especially with today's dietary environment," says Ashley English, author of Handmade Gatherings. "It seems like everyone has a restriction or particular need. I find it best to send out an Evite or group email with the invitation, and request if anyone has anything they are allergic to, avoiding, or particularly loathsome of, and then take that feedback as my starting point."
Here are 5 more tips for saving time, staying on budget, and wowing guests when you want to entertain and be healthy.
1. Set A Simple Menu
Arielle Haspel, host of several healthy cooking shows, says the best way to start planning a meal is by creating a menu.
“Whether I’m making dinner for two or 15, I like picking a theme so the entire meal flows,” says the nutrition and entertaining expert. One of her favorite entrees to serve when entertaining is a Fried Rice Quinoa with egg, peas, and carrots.
"It all comes down to planning and so many home cooks haven’t really thought through how the night will go," he said. "To the extent that you can, force yourself to do some planning. The reason many people hate entertaining is that you may be far too ambitious in your choices. Planning will help you see that."
2. Serve Healthier Comfort Foods
If you're not ready to give up your favorite comfort foods, consider how you might make them healthier.
All sorts of veggies can be added to baked pasta dishes, including greens, peas, zucchini, winter squash, and more. This dish adds lentils and spinach to stuffed shells, upping the protein content, too. And if you're pressed for time, you can use canned lentils and frozen spinach.
Another easy tweak is making your own dressing. It's a quick way to enhance everything from pre-made salads to crudité platters from your local grocery store. Most dips and dressings come with a lot of mystery ingredients, but homemade dressings, like this Green Goddess Dressing, require just a few ingredients and can be made with vegan sour cream or yogurt, depending on the dietary needs of your crowd.
3. Use Fresh Herbs
Isabel K. Smith, a New York City-based celebrity dietitian and fitness expert, says one of the easiest ways to cook healthy food without sacrificing flavor is to utilize fresh herbs. Her favorites include cilantro, basil, and parsley.
“When it comes to cooking for a crowd it’s all about using fresh herbs and spices and flavors to cover up any subtle switches you may have made in ingredients—such as switching olive oil for butter or whole wheat for regular pasta—to improve the health factor in a dish,” Smith said. “You can use both fresh and dried herbs for both garnish and flavor.”
4. Make Ahead
Los Angeles restaurateur and Top Chef Masters star Susan Feniger revealed to Food & Wine magazine that her biggest tip for hosting crowds is to “serve dishes that are delicious whether they’re hot, room temperature, or even cold, so people can eat when they get hungry. I’d never do a plated dinner for a large group.”
Leviton agrees with this philosophy. He recommends doing a lot of "set-it-and-forget-it kind of cooking." His favorite is roasting vegetables and serving them at room temperature or braizing a piece of meat and gently reheating it on the day of the party.
"Prepare items where all the work is done ahead of time so you can participate in conversations and be part of the party," he said. "You can roast a mess of root vegetables. Over-roast them a little bit so they get some color and they get really soft and all those wonderful vegetative sugars come out. Then you can serve them room temp with a little bit of Greek yogurt or vinaigrette/salsa. It's easy and it's all done ahead of time. You can do that in the morning, leave them at room temp, and you're done."
5. Stay Seasonal
"Seasonal foods always taste best," English said. "A warming soup or stew in the winter or a build-your-own taco dinner in the summer works great."
Not sure what's in season? Check out your local farmers market or refer to an online seasonal food guide like this one from Sustainable Table.
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