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Feeding A Crowd: 10 Tips for Healthy Entertaining

by | Dec 9, 2011

Photo by star5112

Sarah Newkirk is a New Hampshire native, Brooklyn booster, brand strategist, aspiring nurse practitioner, eternal student, inept yoga enthusiast and reformed picky eater committed to healthy living. She just started blogging at

Feeding A Crowd: 10 Tips for Healthy Entertaining

The holiday season is in full swing, which means many of us are stepping up and taking our turn at hosting a party. It’s also a time of year when culinary temptations are kicked up a notch, leading many of us to stray from the healthy habits we’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

When you’re in charge of the menu, why not offer your guests healthier options and even a nudge in the right direction? Many people secretly welcome the chance to take a night off from overindulgence. When done right, they won’t notice anything other than the amazing food and great time.

Here are some tips on how to prepare and serve up a healthy, satisfying and festive spread when entertaining large groups:

1. Plan ahead

Even if you’re comfortable in the kitchen, cooking for larger groups than you’re used to can be intimidating. But really it’s easier than you think, and with careful planning you’ll pull it off without a hitch. Do some reconnaissance early, and plan a well-balanced meal around what’s fresh and in season. Concentrate on foods that hold up well and can be served at room temperature. Schedule in a test run the weekend before if you’re making a recipe for the first time.

2. Do in advance

Do as much of the prepping and cooking as you can in the days leading up to the big event. On the day of, you should be focused on reheating (slowly, so that you don’t go overboard and restart the cooking process), assembly and other final touches. This will help you keep on schedule and ensure you’re not a cranky mess when your guests show up.

Braised meats, baked beans and most soups actually taste better on the second or third day after they are cooked. One of my staples is a main-course chickpea and leek soup with pancetta that holds up extremely well for at least three days. All I do the day I serve it is reheat, grill some bread and make a green salad.

Two days before the party, make your dips and sauces and cook your beans and grains. One day before, cut and roast your veggies and make grain-based salads like this one. Shrimp cocktail (a party classic for a reason) should be cooked the day before to allow it time to thoroughly chill in the fridge.

Most desserts can be prepared a day or two in advance, then either served chilled or baked off after the party is underway. A few weeks ago I made this dessert for a few friends (adding an extra apple and skipping the whipped cream). It took me less than 10 minutes to warm up the apples and layer the two components into serving glasses as everyone was finishing up dinner.

Some things need to be done the day of the party, like frying, dressing a fresh vegetable salad and anything involving foods that visibly oxidize (e.g. avocados and raw apples.) Keep this list of tasks manageable and you won’t get in over your head.

3. Serve reasonable quantities of food

Most people make way too much food when entertaining, usually out of a combination of poor planning (see tip 1) and the fear of being judged a bad host in the unlikely event the food runs out. Resist the temptation. You’re not doing your guests any favors by making them feel obligated to stuff their faces. Develop a realistic estimate of what you’ll need based on the anticipated headcount, and proceed accordingly. If serving buffet style, set out reasonable quantities and refill when the food runs low.

4. Make it yourself

In a convenience-driven world, taking the time to make things from scratch showcases your love of food and makes your guests feel special. When they know it’s homemade, people will slow down and savor their food, helping with portion control.

Even if you’re relying on prepared food to make things easier (nothing wrong with that), try your hand at making your own dressings, toppings and condiments. They’ll lend a homemade (or, dare I say, Semi-Homemade – hey, it’s not a terrible concept) feel to the entire dish, impress your guests with your rock-star kitchen skills, and can often be made days or even weeks in advance. One of my favorites is ketchup: so much better than commercial versions, and I’ll bet you’ll prefer making it, like I do, with a fraction of the sugar.

5. Let your guests know what’s on the menu

If your guests are left to guess whether a full dinner will be served or if the appetizers are the meal, they’ll probably go to town on the cheese platter and regret it later. Make a menu card and set it on the serving table at the beginning of the night, and let the anticipation build.

6. Server lighter, more nutritious appetizers

Appetizers laden with empty calories are dietary Kryptonite, setting the stage for a night of overeating. Start the evening with a more satisfying mix of fats and proteins that won’t overwhelm the appetite. Spiced nuts, black bean dip, guacamole and devilled eggs are all great options.

Include more decadent options in the mix if that’s what you love to cook, just make them filling, nutrient-rich and worth the indulgence. Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with cheese and almonds have been known to cause normally even-keeled guests to nearly collapse with delight, and they’re rich enough that most people will consume in moderation. Anything that good has a place in my world and on my menu as a special-occasion treat.

Bread, crackers and chips are a popular foundation for many appetizers, but are typically (not always) low in nutritional value. If they’re nothing more than an edible personal serving platter and not adding much flavor or texture, consider swapping in lighter options. Some to try: cucumber cups, lettuce leaves, apple slices, water crackers or toothpick skewers.

7. Offer non-alcoholic beverage options

Rather than make hydration seekers rifle around in your kitchen, set out a pitcher of water and appropriate glassware alongside the liquor. Guests with a morning meeting, unannounced early-stage pregnancy or just the desire to take it easy will appreciate a non-alcoholic option that is still fun. I mix seltzer with cherry syrup and add limes for a homemade cherry-lime ricky.

8. Give healthier options an upgrade

Treats do a good job at selling themselves, while healthy options might need some help to compete. Think contrasting colors and textures, unexpected sweet-and-savory combinations, and big flavors that satisfy in smaller quantities. Remember back to something truly exceptional you ate at a restaurant, and search online for a similar recipe. Put some time into creating food that’s as visually appealing as it is delicious.

Make it accessible as well: any guest who respects the integrity of a host’s upholstery (not to mention his or her own clothing) will shy away from food that’s awkward to eat. Cut your veggies bite-sized, pre-slice the meat into easily speared pieces, and serve sauces on the side.

9. Serve the food earlier …

Food at parties is often served later than most people are used to eating (largely due to lack of planning on the part of the host—see tip 1 again). This means your guests are probably drinking on an empty stomach, which speeds alcohol absorption. Late-night eating is also linked to weight gain.

Be nice to your guests and start putting the food out by 8 (7 if you live in an early-dining town.)

10. … and put it away when the time comes

After it’s been a few hours and everyone’s had ample time to eat, bring the food to the kitchen and pack it up. I set my iPhone alarm as a reminder, as I’m normally enjoying my own party too much at that point to remember. Don’t worry about the late arrivals; odds are they double-booked and already dined elsewhere.

You’ll get a head start on clean up and save your guests the indignity of picking at an already picked-over spread after a few too many cocktails (I’ve certainly been there).

At its best, this time of year is about being generous, slowing down and enjoying time with the people you care about. I feel fortunate to have enough food to share. When it’s your turn to host, good luck and have fun.

What are your tricks and tips for healthy entertaining?

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