Our Healthy & Whole series isn’t only about serious topics like the inner critic and emotional eating; it’s also about the joy of connecting with people through sharing a meal…which incidentally has some major psychological benefits as well, as you’ll learn below! We’re very excited to bring you a Q&A with Anna Watson Carl, author of The Yellow Table cookbook and the blog of the same name. Anna is passionate that food is meant to be shared and eaten with family and community (and we heartily agree!). She’s an entertaining expert and a fantastic cook–we always salivate when looking at the photos on her blog. Here she shares with us that entertaining can be healthy without sacrificing taste, how to cook for various diets in one meal, and what’s important about connecting with people through food. And speaking of connections — we’re honored to connect with her through food! Thanks again to Anna for sharing your wisdom with us here, and for your gorgeous book! Check out The Yellow Table here.
Sonja: What are your top tips for a dinner party that’s both healthy and delicious?
Anna: It’s a given that when I’m cooking something, I make sure it’s delicious! I happen to love to cook in a Mediterranean style, with lots of fresh, seasonal produce and herbs, extra-virgin olive oil, and small amounts of humanely raised meats or wild fish, so my meals end up being pretty healthy as well. Here are a few tips to make sure your dinner party food is healthy and delicious:
- Cook with the seasons and buy as locally as possible. Your food will taste better, and as an added benefit, will be healthier because the nutrients won’t be sapped during long transits and storage time.
- Think in terms of courses. That way, people pace themselves throughout the evening – nibbling a bit along the way, rather than stuffing themselves with extra servings of the main course. I always start out with some sort of appetizer for people to graze on before they sit at the table. Instead of serving a cheese-laden dip, I’ll often make a pretty crudité platter with seasonal raw veggies and lemon-parsley tahini dip, and maybe a simple bowl of marinated olives. For the main course, I love serving dishes family-style, so people can help themselves. I’ll often roast a big piece of salmon with Dijon-honey vinaigrette, lemon and thyme – it’s so moist and delicious, but really healthy and easy to make for a crowd. Then I’ll make a couple of salads (usually one grain that I can make in advance, and one green) and a couple of vegetable side dishes (see below for full menu!). I do have a sweet tooth, so I’ll almost always offer a dessert. There are definite ways to keep things light: in the summer, I’ll make seasonal homemade granita with just a tiny amount of sugar. In the fall, roasted pears dusted with some nutmeg and served with a dollop of Greek yogurt makes for a simple, healthy dessert.
- Choose soup. In the fall or winter, a big pot of vegetable-packed soup (like Sprouted Lentil with Kale or Butternut Squash with Spiced Pear) is an easy way to serve something that’s both delicious AND healthy. Soups are also perfect for a dinner party in that they can be made completely in advance. Just serve with a salad and some good, grainy bread, and you’re all set!
Sonja: Let’s say I’ve got a meat eater, a vegetarian, a dairy-free, and a gluten-free friend who are coming to the party. How do I incorporate them all without making anyone feel left out?
Anna: I find that working with dietary needs is more and more common these days. For a dinner party, if I had this particular combo of friends coming over, I’d do some sort of simple grilled or roasted meat dish along with several vegan, gluten-free side dishes. Since there’s only one person not eating meat, I wouldn’t feel bad about serving meat to everyone else. But making gluten-free, dairy-free side dishes and dessert actually isn’t that hard, and then everyone can eat the same meal.
In my cookbook, I labeled every recipe with symbols indicating whether they are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, or vegan – I think it’s important to incorporate to show that eating within dietary restrictions needn’t be a total chore. And most importantly, it should still be delicious!
For this particular group, I’d serve:
- Roasted Chicken with Lemon and Thyme (GF, DF)
- Roasted Fingerling Potatoes (GF, DF, Veg)
- Arugula Salad with Radicchio & Fennel (GF, DF, Veg) – minus the Parmesan!
- Almond Cake with Lavender Honey + Seasonal Fruit (GF, DF, Veg)
All of these recipes can be found in The Yellow Table: A Celebration of Everyday Gatherings.
Sonja: What’s your story: how did you get interested in food and cooking?
Anna: I grew up eating nearly every meal around my family’s yellow table. It was the center of our home, and created in me a love of shared meals, community, and conversation. This tradition of gathering around the table every day as a family made a lasting impression on my life. In college, I studied abroad in Paris, and fell in love with their food culture – the markets teeming with fresh produce, the long, leisurely meals, and their reverence for quality ingredients and artisan everything. I came back my senior year determined to pursue a career in food. I later returned to France to study cooking at La Varenne Ecole de la Cuisine.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in many aspects of the food industry: as a food writer for newspapers and magazines, as a private chef, a restaurant cook, a recipe tester and developer for magazines and websites, a cooking instructor, food stylist, and now as a blogger and cookbook author. It’s been so much fun, and I feel so lucky to pursue a career that I love – I wouldn’t change a thing.
Sonja: What’s important about sharing food in community?
Anna: I really don’t think we were ever intended to eat alone. Food has always been prepared and eaten in the context of family and community. Food, like stories, are meant to be shared. Some of my happiest memories have taken place around the table over a home-cooked meal, telling stories, laughing, and sharing life with the people I love.
There are many well-documented health and psychological benefits to eating meals together as a family, or with friends: it reduces stress, helps fight obesity, and develops a general sense of well-being that can reduce your risk of depression. In kids, it helps reduce their risk of drug-use and other risky behaviors. All these benefits come just from eating meals together!
Sonja: Anything else to share with our readers?
Anna: Throwing dinner parties doesn’t have to be an intimidating task. Keep in mind that people aren’t coming over to judge you – they just want to be with you! So don’t get hung up on having everything overly perfect. Keep your menu simple and pick things that can be made in advance so you can actually enjoy spending time with your guests at your party, rather than slaving in the kitchen all night!
Sonja: Last thing, I promise–recipe picks for healthy dinner party for fall?
Anna: I recently launched a Yellow Table Supper Club, and my October dinner party menu is actually really healthy AND beautiful for fall (and includes the roasted salmon I referenced above!).
- Goat Cheese Crostini with Fig-Olive Tapenade
- Honey-Dijon Roasted Salmon with Lemon and Thyme
- Quinoa with Roasted Butternut Squash, Spinach, and Red Onion
- Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Endive, Lemon, and Pecorino
- Pumpkin Madeleines (or the roasted pears with nutmeg and Greek yogurt I referenced above!)
Photo credits: Signe Birck and Brandon Carl
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.