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For starters: Appetizers can be satisfying and healthy, too

By Alethea Price

Contributing writer

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about holiday food and entertaining.

Season’s greetings to all you folks out there throwing parties and hosting events during the most wonderful time of the year. This week kicks off a three-part series dedicated to fun, food and flavor this holiday season. I plan to arm you with all the tools you will need to host a fun event of any magnitude sprinkled with tasty treats. The best part is that it will be easy on your stress level, pocket and waist line.

First up, let’s talk appetizers. Whether you’re throwing a dinner party or making a meal, appetizers are great for any occasion. Quick little bites bursting with flavor can put any Scrooge in the holiday spirit. Appetizers are the perfect party food because they require few ingredients and little effort. At least the ones I like to prepare fit that description. I always go for things that can be made in advance, in a crock pot or thrown together in a matter of minutes. Here are some no-fail finger food suggestions to leave your guests feeling satisfied.

Meatballs — need I say more? These are a great option in any situation. Visit your grocer’s freezer section for some premade meatballs that you can add your own sauce recipe. If you want to get fancy, make them from scratch but frozen works perfectly fine. Put the fresh or frozen meatballs in your crock pot and then prepare the sauce — it’s actually really simple. Mix a jar of grape jelly and a bottle of your favorite original BBQ sauce together and pour over the meatballs for a classic flavor, substitute a spicy BBQ sauce for some added heat or mix a bottle of original BBQ sauce with a bottle of chili sauce for a tangy flavor. Get creative with alternative flavors such as Asian chili or marinara for a whole new twist.

Speaking of a twist, pop open a can of crescent or biscuit dough to make all sorts of easy apps. The best part about premade dough is all of the ways you can stuff it.

Piggy blankets are always a crowd favorite. Take some crescent dough and wrap it around little mini sausages and bake until golden brown. Add a piece of cheese to the mini sausage before rolling the dough. Got leftover ham? Roll that up with some cheese. Roll up some chocolate chips in the crescent dough and sprinkle with powdered sugar for a sweet treat. Spread some store-bought pesto on the dough and lay diced roasted red peppers on it, roll it up in a log, slice and bake for pesto pinwheels.

You can make these apps in advance and freeze them before or after you bake them, saving time.

Last but not least on our list of easy appetizers are dips — made as simple or as complicated as you want.  Simple doesn’t mean you’re skimping on flavor; some of the best dips have less than five ingredients. Buffalo chicken dip has shredded chicken, ranch dressing, sour cream, cream cheese and hot sauce. Serve on crackers or toast points. Salsa has tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime juice and salt. Serve with tortilla chips. Guacamole has avocados and — here’s the best secret ever —  pico de gallo. Serve with tortilla chips, Triscuits or fresh veggies. *Side note: Pico de gallo is just diced onions, tomatoes and cilantro that you can buy already prepared. It goes well with everything. Makes really delicious and quick guac if you’re in a hurry. Don’t forget to squeeze a little lime juice on that avocado to keep it from turning brown.

If you want a quick fruit dip, just mix a cup of low fat vanilla yogurt and cinnamon to taste and serve. My favorite veggie dip consists of one cup of plain non-fat Greek yogurt and a dry ranch seasoning packet.

The tip to a great cold dip is to make it ahead and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours so the flavors get better acquainted. The tip to great hot dips is to use a crock pot liner so clean up is a breeze. The other tip to a great hot dip is easy — cheese.

Now that we have covered the essentials, let’s explore two topics I can’t get enough of: food safety and healthy snacks. You will have a happier holiday if you don’t have food poisoning. Just remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Get those leftovers into the fridge in a timely fashion. Within two hours to be specific. Bacteria love holiday appetizers just as much as your guests, don’t invite them to the party. My favorite thing to have on a buffet line isn’t even something you can eat. Have a bottle of hand sanitizer by the plates and napkins so people remember to “wash their hands” before digging in.

Holiday parties can have many delicious foods full of flavor as well as calories. Here are some tips to cut calories but not flavor. Serve dips with whole wheat crackers, fruit or veggies. Don’t be afraid to serve fruit and vegetable based apps. Caprese salad kabobs are simple, light and elegant. Dazzle your guests by serving fruit infused sparkling water to drink instead of sugary punch.

These easy appetizers will satisfy your guests without making them too full. Though the holidays are often filled with rich, heavy foods, it doesn’t have to be that way. Check out these recipes, they’re good examples of light finger food that are just as delicious and better for you than other more traditional appetizers.

Healthy holiday spinach and artichoke bites

Makes about 18 bites

1 ½ 6 oz. jars of marinated artichoke hearts

⅔ cup of cooked chopped spinach

1 teaspoon of lemon pepper

1 teaspoon of garlic powder

8 oz. of Brie cheese, cut up into 18 thin slices

Preheat broiler. Chop spinach into small pieces. Cut Brie into thin slices. Cook spinach in pan until spinach is soft and dark green color. Add lemon pepper, garlic powder, salt to spinach while cooking. Place a little bit of spinach mixture on top of each artichoke heart and top spinach mixture with a slice of Brie. Broil spinach and artichoke bites in oven until cheese melts (about 1 – 2 minutes).

Nutritional analysis per serving:20calories, 1 gram fat,4 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium, 1 gram carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram protein

Caprese salad kabobs

Makes 12 kabobs

24 grape tomatoes

12 cherry-size fresh mozzarella cheese balls

24 fresh basil leaves

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

12 wooden skewers

On each wooden skewer, thread a tomato, basil leaf, cheese ball, basil leaf and finish with another tomato. Place skewers on a serving plate. In a small bowl, whisk the olive oil and the vinegar; drizzle over kabobs just before serving.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 45 calories, 4 grams fat, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 12 milligrams sodium, 2 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram protein

If you have questions, comments or need information? Email thekitchenagent@gmail.com.