Cool as a Cucumber

Summer in northeast U.S.A. is the go-to season for healthful, colorful, and delicious fruits and vegetables and a time when families and friends tend to gather regularly for graduations, weddings, picnics, and backyard barbecues. What better way to celebrate being in the company of people you love and feeding yourself well than planning a party of your own?

Living Room Picnic

Creating a menu doesn’t have to be stressful or sinful when you dish out whole, fresh ingredients—served buffet-style—with homemade dressings and dips on the side. Not only will your plates be visually appealing and packed with high-quality nutrients, but you won’t have to break a sweat putting everything together.

Much like designing any healthful meal, the same rules apply: more variety and colors mean more vitamins and nutrients. Include a mix of animal- and/or plant-based proteins (skinless chicken breast, tenderloin, lentils, black beans, and tofu are great options), carbohydrates (brown rice, corn, and quinoa are versatile grains; Swiss chard, beet greens, and eggplant are nutrient-rich vegetables), and healthy fats (think walnuts, ground flaxseed, and olive oil).

Avoid heavy sauces and let the natural goodness of your bounty speak for itself. To start, make a light, but flavorful, marinade or rub for your protein dishes from a complementary blend of dried and fresh herbs and spices like cumin-chili-cilantro or dill-mustard-yogurt. Next, toss up a simple salad of different colored veggies like thinly sliced summer squash and heirloom tomato over leafy greens. Whisk together a light dressing of lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. For dessert, consider macerated fruit like peaches and blueberries drizzled with honey and white balsamic vinegar. (Check out Foodily or Yummly for other great recipe ideas.) This entire combination of foods alone offers a beneficial dose of many vitamins and minerals—like manganese, vitamins C, K, and A, dietary fiber, iron, and antioxidants—to support your body systems.

Consider the following:

  • Plan and prepare accordingly by asking your guests or estimating of the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians attending your party.
  • Serve ingredients separately to accommodate those who may have special diet requirements so they can build their own meals. Label each dish so guests don’t have to guess or ask, “What’s in this?”
  • Provide take-home items. Leftover containers will encourage your guests to continue eating healthfully after they’ve left your party. Stack printouts of your recipes on the buffet table so they can try their hands at creating their own versions at home or include recipe links in a thank-you e-mail a few days after the event.

When the party’s over, revel in the fact that, quite possibly for the first time for many of your guests, nothing was off-limits. Not only will you have enjoyed great company, but you will have served healthful fare to your grateful guests who may want to know when they can come back for more!

[Versions of this article were written for and published on YoffieLife.com on September 1, 2014 and DishWithDina.com on August 13, 2015.]

Beating the Barbecue Blues

Ah, summer! Along with sunny days, warmer temperatures, and the urge to want to leave work early come invitations to graduation parties, barbecues, and picnics in the park. Tempting as these may be, you may end up feeling sluggish, bloated, and upset with yourself after indulging in some of the more unfavorable foods served at these events. The best summer party accessory is a healthful-eating action plan.

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(image credit: https://static.pexels.com)

On the days before and after, make a conscious effort to eat nutritiously so that, if you do splurge a bit, you don’t suffer guilt (or stomachaches) later. Have a hearty breakfast the morning of your gathering, or a small snack—like whole grain pretzel sticks and peanut butter—a couple of hours before the event. As you’re heading to the venue, visualize your plate piled high with colorful and varied foods. At the very least, most functions will usually have salad fixings, so fill up on the items that will give you the most nutrients, vitamins, and fiber, then reward yourself with a small portion of something decadent. After all, you are celebrating!

Aromas may entice, but barbecued and fried foods like steaks, burgers, pork ribs, and chicken wings can be high in fat, calories, and sodium––especially if accompanied by seasonings, sauces, and buns. (Not to mention the potential food safety issues at these gatherings, when foods that contain meat and dairy have been sitting outdoors for too long.) A basic cheeseburger will run you about 350 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 600 milligrams of sodium, which is nearly 25 percent of your daily recommended value. Even a handful of nuts come in at 10 grams of fat, and that refreshing cup of sangria will cost you 20 grams of sugar. You don’t have to cut out everything completely, but keep these numbers in mind before you approach the food tables, especially if you’re concerned about weight management and caloric intake, or have a pre-existing condition like high cholesterol or hypertension.

Consider the following:

  • Plan ahead. Call and ask the hosts what they’ll be serving the day of their event and ask if you can bring a plant-based side dish with you (a three-bean salad, baked kale chips, or carrot sticks and hummus) if there’s going to be nothing but fried foods and salty snacks.
  • Choose wisely. If the venue doesn’t allow for outside food, then make smart adjustments. Forgo the bread; select a leaner meat and omit the toppings; replace anything fried with salad. And always—always—eat off a plate.
  • Keep moving. Mingle, mingle, mingle. Take a lap around the buffet before every course. Engage in a game of volleyball or two in between servings. Each little burst of movement will keep your nibbling to a minimum, and your calories in check.

While you are out of your element, you can still be in control when it comes to your nutrition as long as you plan on being mindful before you even walk out the door. With a healthful eating strategy, you can successfully face that smorgasbord of potentially harsh foods on the other side.

[A version of this article was written for, and first appeared in, YoffieLife.com on June 29, 2014.]