You try to eat well most of the time, right? But when it comes time to entertain, does healthy food languish in your refrigerator while you present your guests high calorie, high sugar, high salt, low nutrient delicacies? Hint: if it contains marshmallows, it’s probably not healthy.
What’s one night of tasty if unhealthy favorites? you might reasonably ask.
Well, for one, there’s leftovers, which make your party more than one night of eating debauchery. Then there are the reciprocal invitations which mean more indulgence. The more times you get off track of your healthy diet, the harder it is to get back on it. Further, consuming “highly palatable foods” (tasty ones and those filled with sugar, fat, and salt) cause us to overeat.
Then there’s this: If you think about it, you’ve probably noticed eating healthy whole foods makes you feel physically and psychologically good. And unhealthy food leaves one feeling bloated and regretful. Which gift would you like to send home with your guests?
Okay, now you’re on board with serving healthy food, yes? But what constitutes healthy food is not so obvious. That’s because:
- Individual dietary needs vary. Whole grains, for instance, may be healthy for some while for those who cannot consume gluten, not so much.
- Nutrition experts seem to argue against one another a lot, especially when espousing a particular diet like Keto, Paleo, Vegan, or a brand name diet replete with meals you have to buy.
- The media mucks up the picture by touting the latest study without context (such as who funded the study, what population was used, how much variation showed up in the results, if the study only used a small number of people or large, were the results short or long-term, were reports based on correlation rather than experimental variables, and other differences) that account for competing news. Quick quiz: eggs–healthy or unhealthy? Margarine–health food or villain?
- Even health guidelines from the USDA (MyPlate.gov) hardly represent the best nutrition science. One problem is the guidelines are vague and misleading. Are all fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins equivalent, as suggested by the plate diagram? No, no, no, and no. Some of the contents of the plate is influenced by agri-business who create a glut of dairy and grain, resulting in advice that dairy is for everyone, as are grains. Um, no, not for all the people who are sensitive to gluten or dairy. Some of the advice is just plain outdated, by some 100 years, in some cases, but for some reason still repeated. For instance if you look up the government’s latest nutrition advice, we are still told to, “choose low fat or fat free dairy products” when the low fat diet has been thoroughly discredited and further, whole fat dairy products in particular seem to be healthier choices than their low fat counterparts. Oh, don’t get me started!
On the other hand, there are certain guidelines you can count on. Eat foods that are:
- Whole foods (not processed and generally doesn’t come in a package)
- Plant foods. Which is not to say non-plant foods are unhealthy for everyone, but plant foods are healthy for most people and should make up a large portion of your diet. Especially non-starchy veggies, low sugar fruits, nuts, and seeds. Include more of these in your entertaining as well as in your regular diet.
- Low sugar/no added sugar. That means any kind of sugar, even from fruit juice. Orange juice, for instance, is probably worse for you than soda, ounce for ounce. An orange, with its fiber, is not as problematic. Unless you’re on a low carb diet.
- Nutrient dense. Many kinds vegetables, nuts, and seeds prepared so as to keep their nutritional value are rich in so many micronutrients that we don’t even know what they all are. And when these nutrients and vitamins and minerals come to us in their natural food packages, they are far more effective than vitamins or enriched processed foods. Sorry vitamin poppers!
- Include healthy fats. Omega 3’s anyone? (Fish and flax). I’ll write more about fats in the future.
- Be mindful of protein sources.Protein’s a hornet’s nest, I know, and I’ll go into more detail elsewhere. I will suffice it to say, we need protein in our diets, though not as much as people generally think. Unless you are a body builder. There are many sources of vegetable proteins and if you’re a vegetarian I hope that’s familiar territory. But if you eat meat, poultry, or fish, consider that grass-fed has healthier fat than corn or grain fed.
So how do you make healthy food appealing to your guests? It’s not that difficult, people!
- Start with the freshest, most vibrant ingredients: go to your local farmer’s market and find food that is picked ripe that morning. It will be full of nutrients, flavor and color. You’ll find intriguing shaped, colored, and flavored heirloom varieties and colors not seen in supermarkets.
- Appeal to the five senses. We eat first with our eyes and our noses. Use color, shape, arrangement, plating, garnishes, and texture, or even your choice of plate make your dish call out to guests. Use fresh herbs and pungent spices to draw your friends in. Of course pay attention to taste and texture as well. Find a good recipe and be mindful of balance and harmony.
Some plating ideas/concepts:
- Choose a vessel that will show off your creation. A fancy bowl, a tall martini glass…use your imagination! Decide if you will do individual plates (probably for a more intimate gathering) or something along the lines of a decorative platter.
- Use white space. We’re creating art here, people. Also: people tend to eat the amount of food they’re served, so make portions reasonably sized, use smaller plates, provide smaller utensils.
- Play with arrangements. For instance, use cucumber slices to make a border. I stole this trick from my grandfather. Alternate colors and shapes. Make shapes out of piles.
- Enter the world of garnishes. You don’t have to learn the art of carving a carrot into a dragonfly to create pretty dishes. Microgreens are healthy and can add color and dimension. Sliced fruits or veggies can work. You want to slice something really pretty? Check out a watermelon radish. Even showier: edible flowers! I can’t wait until they’re in season again at my local farmer’s market.
- Go 3D. You might not be a Chopped contestant, but you can use vertical space. A bed of leaves, a pile of the main deal, a garnish on top. Voila!
- Contrast colors and textures. If your dish is all green, think of what might add color. If it’s smooth, maybe you want to add an element of crunch.
Answers to quick quiz: 1. Eggs are healthy for most people. They are a good source of protein, have no sugars (or carbs), and people who ate (whole) eggs frequently had better cardiovascular health than those who did not. Yes they have fat, but fats unless in excess, are burned for fuel in your body. Fructose, a sugar, on the other hand, can not be burned for energy (unlike glucose) and is instantly stored in your body as fat. Fructose is fruit sugar but is also found in table sugar (sucrose) along with glucose. 2. Margarine, as originally developed, was all transfat, the very worst kind of fat for you, and one that actually contributes to cardiovascular disease. Butter is far far far better for you. (Olive oil even better, but anyway.) Most margarines have been reformulated since I was fed a steady diet of the partially hydrogenated villain that was the margarine in the 80s and 90s. (I hate to throw my well-meaning parents under the bus here; I know my mom and dad were doing their best. We were told dairy fat = bad; industrially produced fat that started off life as a plant = good. Oh well.)
Check out my recipe on my food blog for pesto zoodles, delicious and happens to be a superfood!