Our Hostess With the Mostess Discusses What to Serve Guests Who are Fighting the Battle of the Bulge

Merrily Jackson. Photo by Corie English

On being told how thin she looks, the Emily Blunt character in The Devil Wears Prada exults that she is just one stomach flu away from her goal weight.

It’s probably the most quoted line in the film because it sends up the daily battle many of us fight with the scale, especially in January, when we’ve resolved to lose the holiday weight. The struggle becomes even more difficult when one has a social life. We go to brunches, cocktail parties, dinner parties in people’s homes. Who wants to be that cheerless guest who is starving herself—or himself, as the case may be? The battle becomes so much easier when we are offered healthy options. As hosts, this becomes our challenge. It’s easy to make something delicious using unlimited quantities of sugar, butter, and heavy cream. It takes finesse to serve fare that is healthy, yet special enough to qualify as party food. 

Here are some ideas, course by course, for healthy dinner party menu selections. 

First, Cocktails
Booze is so fun. And so fattening. Even an innocent-looking shot of vodka has a hundred calories. Certain mixers, such as tonic or orange juice (both loaded with sugar), send the tally through the roof. I personally believe that a glass or two of wine or cocktail at a party is worth the splurge, especially when made less heinous by the use of low-cal mixers, like club soda and diet soft drinks. It’s thoughtful to have them on hand in your bar. My new favorite adult beverage consists of the best mixer of all—water, about three fingers—combined with a bracing shot of Templeton Rye whiskey (the bottle is so handsome!), over ice. 

Here’s a tangy, refreshing party drink, relatively low in calories, that you can serve by the pitcher: mix one part grapefruit juice, one part Fresca and one part vodka. Pour over ice with sprigs of mint and basil. 

When serving a special, premixed drink, your dieting guest will thank you if you have a low-sugar option. If you’re making a pitcher of margaritas, have a bottle of Skinny Girl Margaritas on hand. Skinny Girl also makes mojito, cosmopolitan, and pina colada products, none as good as the real thing, but not half bad. Stay away from the Skinny Girl Wine, though—not good.  

Little Snackie Things
It’s so easy to go sideways when confronted with the classic snacks we serve and get served during drinks. People love mixed nuts and Goldfish, and they shouldn’t be denied them. But a little platter of crudités (see my sidebar on the left for ideas) is deeply appreciated by certain of us who mindlessly munch while we sip and chat. I want to hug the host when I see jicama sticks, kale chips, a bowl of Skinny Pop. A great recipe to serve with crudités is pureed pea dip with mint and lemon from Martha Stewart’s Clean Slate cookbook. It takes frozen peas and makes them taste like spring. Email me for the recipe, or any recipe mentioned herein.  

Salad Goes With Everything
“Let things taste of what they are,” says organic food activist Alice Waters, who probably would agree that a simple green salad is an endlessly interesting first course, especially when lightly dressed with a good vinaigrette. No one will miss the croutons or fattening “mix-ins” if you use a superlative combination of lettuces. Romaine, radicchio, arugula, baby spinach, and Swiss chard look and taste glorious together, and all are available in the organic produce section of most supermarkets. 

Life is too short to use cheap vinegar or olive oil in a vinaigrette—the good stuff makes all the difference. I have Nora Ephron’s famous vinaigrette committed to memory (you know what to do if you want it), but I use balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar. A tablespoon of minced shallots takes it, or any vinaigrette, right over the top. 

Nothing More Adaptable Than Soup
Soup, the dieter’s hero, can be a terrific first course for a dinner party or—with a hearty enough recipe—an inspired main course. The diet-conscious will appreciate not being tempted by bisques and other cream-based soups. Do you have an immersion blender? They are great for making wholesome, broth-based vegetable soups and puréeing them, as they sit in their pots, into little oceans of creaminess that taste decadent but are not. My favorites are puréed carrot soup and puréed butternut squash soup. Gwyneth Paltrow has a recipe in My Father’s Daughter for broccoli-cheese soup that tastes sinful, but is mostly broccoli and vegetable stock with a little bit of Stilton tossed in. It is a nice first course for a big-deal dinner party, or a satisfying main course for a casual one, especially if feeding vegetarians.

Skinny Main Courses
For a dinner party, I am wont to do idiot-proof one-dish main courses, like boeuf bourguignon or lasagna Bolognese. Delicious, but a million calories a bite. I have some nice, lower-calorie alternatives.

Giada De Laurentiis, in Giada’s Feel Good Food, thoughtfully provides the calorie counts for all of her recipes. Her Noodle Paella, made with whole-wheat spaghetti, is authentic tasting, easy to make, and only 350 calories for a good-sized serving.

Mark Bittman’s Braised Fish, Pot-Roast Style is scrumptious made with halibut. He does want you to fling some chopped potatoes into it; you could substitute parsnips I suppose, although that seems a little draconian. You don’t want to become known as the host who serves only rabbit food.

My friend and local theater legend Ron Megee and his husband, Jon Fulton Adams, are incredibly svelte and natty looking after going on the keto diet. They told me they served food made from keto recipes to friends at a recent party, and it was a hit. Ron graciously shared with me one of his favorite main-course recipes, Keto Chicken Curry. I’ll be happy to send it to you.

And Finally, Diet-Friendly Desserts
Healthy desserts are easy to figure out in the summer and early fall, when we have an abundance of fresh berries, cherries, and peaches, which need little or no adornment. This time of year is a little trickier. Ina Garten, who seldom disappoints, in Barefoot Contessa Parties gives us a stellar recipe, Perfect Poached Fruit, just right for a late winter/early spring party, with Bosc pears, dried figs, apricots, and prunes. You can make it the day before; it only gets better as it sits.

Almost any fruit is delicious when it is sliced or chopped, placed on a half-sheet, dusted cut-side-up with sugar, popped into a 450 degree oven until caramelized, then spritzed with a little orange juice. You even can do this with frozen fruit, providing you thaw it first.

Meringue is another gift to the weight conscious. In her book, Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipe for Blueberry Pavlova using medallions of meringue is fabulous, especially if you substitute vanilla yogurt for the whipping cream.


Not Forever on the Hips

Guilt-free finger food, to the diet-conscious party guest, is a happy sight. Show ‘em the love by providing a platter of interesting veggies accompanied by a low-fat dip or two. Here are some suggestions for exceptional crudité.  Note: avoid broccoli. It funks up the room, and no one ever touches it.

  • Blanched haricots verts
  • Asparagus (should be lightly blanched if thick)
  • Jicama sticks
  • Belgian endive leaves (natural scoops!)
  • Steamed radishes
  • Sugar snap peas. trimmed
  • Tiny purple or yellow carrots, scrubbed but not peeled, blanched if tough
  • Kohlrabi, cut into very thin rounds
  • Fennel bulbs, thinly sliced lengthwise with core intact
  • Mushrooms
  • Turnips, peeled, each cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
  • Cherry tomatoes

Accompany with raita, puréed pea dip, pico de gallo, black bean dip, or cannellini bean spread. Email me for recipes!

Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at mjackson@inkansascity.com

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