Healthy dinner party tips

Dinner table laid out for guests

You can host a sumptuous dinner party and still be kind to your guests’ health. Our dietitian Victoria Taylor offers some guidance.

When hosting a dinner party, you want guests to leave with fond memories and satisfied stomachs.

But planning the menu isn’t always easy, especially when one or more of your guests have changed their diet for health reasons. Diet is central to the management of diabetes, raised cholesterol and high blood pressure, all of which are risk factors for diseases of the heart and circulation.

And, with obesity levels increasing, many guests will be watching the calories, too. Combine this with allergies, food intolerances or conditions such as coeliac disease, and it can be hard to know what to cook.

Healthy choices for entertaining

"Make sure you provide plenty of vegetables or a salad alongside the main dish so your guests can fill up on these"

For the most common issues such as diabetes, coronary heart disease (CHD) or people trying to lose weight, the emphasis should be on healthy eating, something which is good for all of us.

Stick to healthier cooking methods (grill, steam or bake rather than fry) and go easy on added extras such as cream, cheese and sauces, which can add saturated fat to the meal. Too much saturated fat is linked to raised low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, which are a risk factor for CHD.

Try our baked fish with vegetables en papillote.

Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and mainly come from animal sources (butter, lard, ghee and the fats on meat and in dairy products) but are also found in palm and coconut oils.

Instead of serving butter to go on breads such as rolls or chapatis, use unsaturated spread – transferred from the tub into a little dish if you are putting it on the table – or a little bit of olive oil with balsamic vinegar for dipping or drizzling.

Don’t overdo it

One of the main things to consider is how many courses you offer. Three courses plus pre-dinner nibbles, perhaps some alcohol and sweet treats mean that it can easily become quite a substantial meal.

Serve plenty of salads or vegetables on the sideSo, if you are planning a three-course meal or a meal that comes with lots of accompaniments, serve smaller portions.

Make sure you provide plenty of vegetables or a salad alongside the main dish so your guests can fill up on these. Think about whether you need to do three courses or could you have two if you are serving nibbles before dinner?

Let guests help themselves to starchy foods such as bread, rice or potatoes. It allows them to judge their own portion size and is helpful for people with diabetes where the right amount of carbohydrate varies from person to person.

Read more about getting your portions right.

When it comes to drinks, let people know there are non-alcoholic options and keep a jug of water on the table with a water glass for everyone. It’s also a good idea to have sugar-free versions if you are serving fizzy drinks or cordials.

Read more about alcohol and your heart.

Dietary requirements

Some of your guests may have allergies or be unable to eat specific types of food. However, most menus can be adapted so that everyone enjoys the same meal, making life easier for you as the host.

There is a huge amount of information online (see box, below) including our recipe finder, which allows you to filter recipes so that they are suitable for people with a number of conditions or dietary needs.

More information

Eatwell plateHeart Matters recipe finder

About alcohol units

Allergy UK 01322 619898

Coeliac UK 0845 305 2060

Diabetes UK 0845 120 2960

Eatwell plate

Heart Matters Helpline 0300 330 3300

These will help you get started, but your friends will be the experts on their health. So, why not ask them what they can and can’t eat? Or run your menu past them first so they can tell you whether it is OK for them. If not, they might be able to suggest some simple changes you could make so that it suits everyone.

"Even if you’re cooking for people who avoid certain foods, don’t lose sight of a balanced diet"

This could save you time and effort as well as disappointment if they turn down a dish that you have spent a long time slaving over. It may also open up the conversation about their condition and how they feel about it, especially if they’ve been recently diagnosed.

You can buy foods such as gluten-free bread and biscuits, lactose-free milk and egg substitutes from larger supermarkets and health food shops. These are useful if your recipes can’t be adapted.

Remember, though, that these are substitutes rather than the real thing and may behave differently in your standard recipes or have a slightly different taste or texture. So it’s always worth practising your recipe with the new ingredient if you have time. It’s also a good idea to check with the person you are buying them for that they are right for their condition, allergy or intolerance.

Steer clear of ‘diabetic’ products such as chocolate, cakes and biscuits. These are unnecessary, expensive and can still affect blood sugar control, so are best avoided.

Grilled polenta with herby mushroom medleyAnd, even if you’re cooking for people who avoid certain foods, don’t lose sight of a balanced diet. So if you are planning an Italian menu but someone who has coeliac disease is coming along, make sure you have gluten-free starchy foods.

Instead of serving tomato bruschetta and a pasta dish, you could try vegetable antipasti and a risotto – or why not try our Grilled polenta with herby mushroom medley? Just check that any stock you are using is gluten-free – home-made can be a good option.

Accommodating a variety of different people’s needs into your menu can seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Don’t let anxieties about what you are feeding your guests distract you from all the other things that make a dinner party special. Having a good time relaxing with friends is something we can all enjoy, whatever our dietary needs.

Table talk

Table talk

Avoid adding salt when you’re cooking and don’t automatically put the cellar on the table – your guests may not think about adding it if it isn’t there already.

Try having little dishes of flavourings that complement your meal, such as fresh herbs, chopped chillies, lemon wedges or simply freshly ground black pepper.

Be the best chef

Everyday British BHF recipe book

If you’re looking for some inspiration on something to cook that’s suitable for a number of dietary needs or conditions, use our recipe finder and go to the advanced search section. 

You can also buy the Everyday British BHF recipe book at £9.99 from our online shop.

More useful information