Think small: Make a meal out of healthy appetizers
The first bite is the best. You anticipate the flavor, texture and aroma bursting in your taste buds with that initial forkful, and your expectations are blissfully met. But after a few more mouthfuls, your brain may be ready for a new thrill to keep the excitement of fresh tastes alive.
That’s part of the appeal behind the current small plate craze at restaurants, say researchers, and it’s also why a meal of bite-size appetizers can be an appealing way to satisfy your appetite without eating big portions.
Set the plate
If you’re going to eat a variety of smaller dishes, though, you need to do some planning to turn those tidbits into well-balanced and flavorful meals, say nutrition experts.
Just mix in lean protein, whole grains and veggies.
“You can go by the rule of the three Cs - color, crunch and contrast – to get a chockablock of benefits,” says Dr. Cara Brown, family medicine physician at the Banner Health Clinic in Johnstown, CO.
But don’t think you need to trade nutrients for taste: Wholesome and delicious can easily blend together in an appetizer.
“Smoked salmon, full of omega-3 fatty acids, with whole grain bread and grilled, seasoned asparagus on the side can be a flavorful combo,” says Dr. Brown.
Grilled kabobs or turkey mince lettuce wraps are other healthy appetizers that even kids in the family will love, she adds.
Mix it up
To boost the appeal of your favorite appetizers, don’t be afraid to play with colors to add interest to the plate. Golden beets with green spinach or broccoli with roasted red pepper strips are edible hues that delight the appetite. Beets, tangerine and feta cheese in a salad can be visually appealing, besides the obvious health benefits of vitamins and minerals, protein and good fat.
Besides mixing colors, combining ingredients with different serving temperatures makes appetizers more enticing. Try paper-thin slices of grilled or broiled flank steak tossed with spinach, caramelized onion and mushrooms in a salad.
“That’s a good example of a cold, crunchy salad with protein that packs a satisfying punch,” says Dr. Brown.
Contrasting textures also add interest.
“Think boiled eggs with crunchy whole wheat toast or oatmeal with slivered almonds or chopped walnuts,” Dr. Brown explains. “But crunchy should not mean deep fried.”
Creamy is also a warning sign for high-fat that you want to avoid.
Even though you’re concentrating on healthful ingredients, you could still sabotage your healthful eating strategy if you ignore portion size. For example, an appetizer kabob, such as chicken satay, should be one skewer with a little peanut sauce. Or half of a stuffed portobello mushroom counts as one serving.
“Eating healthful snacks doesn’t mean you can go overboard on them,” says Dr. Brown.
Try the following two recipes, which combine whole grains, protein and vegetables, as part of an appetizer-based light dinner.
Orzo, Spinach, Cannellini Bean and Feta Cheese Salad
1 cup cooked whole-wheat orzo, kept warm
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 cups baby spinach leaves
1 cup canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup crumbled low-fat feta cheese
1-1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon crushed, dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon salt
Place orzo in large salad bowl. Toss with 1 teaspoon oil to prevent sticking. Add spinach, beans and feta cheese. Just before serving, whisk together remaining 5 teaspoons oil, both vinegars, pepper, thyme and salt in a small bowl. Pour over salad. Toss gently but well.
Makes 6 (3/4-cup) servings.
Per serving: 130 calories / 5 grams total fat / 6.5 grams protein / 16.5 grams carbohydrates / 5 milligrams cholesterol / 200 milligrams sodium / 3 grams dietary fiber
Quinoa-Stuffed Baby Bell Peppers
12 baby bell peppers, cored and seeded (about the size of golf balls)
Olive oil cooking spray
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps
1 large shallot, chopped (about ½ cup)
1 cup cooked red quinoa (see note)
¼ cup salted, chopped pecans
2 slices prosciutto, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
Place bell peppers in shallow roasting pan. Spray with cooking spray. Roast in preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender and lightly browned.
While peppers are roasting, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and shallot. Cook for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in quinoa, pecans, prosciutto, salt, pepper, cumin and paprika.
Remove peppers from oven. When cool enough to handle, spoon quinoa mixture into cavities, heaping the mixture into each pepper.
Makes 12 stuffed peppers; 6 servings. Leftovers can be refrigerated for a couple of days.
Note: Red quinoa is available in natural food stores and many supermarkets. Follow cooking directions on package.
If desired, omit prosciutto for vegetarian dish.
Per serving: 134 calories / 6 grams total fat / 5 grams protein / 17 grams carbohydrates / 4 milligrams cholesterol / 230 milligrams sodium / 4.5 grams dietary fiber