Easy, Healthy Appetizers for Holiday Company

By Nava Atlas

Is that the doorbell I hear? If it's December, then it surely must be, foretelling the arrival of company. Though my family likes to keep the holiday season low-key, there's no getting around the fact that this is a sociable season. And while we don't like hoopla, we are hospitable, so I've found it useful to develop a repertoire of easy ideas for appetizers to have on hand for seasonal guests. I like to serve simple things that border on elegant—yet are predominantly healthy and homey — in front of the fire.

The holidays can be a particularly trying time for vegetarians, who often feel shunted aside to the fringe of food-centered celebrations. This time of year can be equally stressful for the generally health-conscious, who don't like the idea of gaining the requisite seven pounds that the average American puts on between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Even though I'm not convinced of this statistic's accuracy, it's become so emblazoned on our consciousness that just the fear of those extra pounds makes it a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes I wonder whether holiday appetizers are the culprits that lead to extra pounds, rather than the meals themselves. In everyone's desire to celebrate and be generous, the snacks and appetizers served before the main meal are often enough to be a meal by themselves.

I've dealt with this by drastically reducing the amount of food I serve before a festive meal — two nicely presented appetizers are quite sufficient. An exception to this would be a gathering that focuses on appetizers and finger foods in place of a meal. This, in fact, can be a nice theme for a festive holiday open house, and in this case, a wide array of tempting healthy treats is certainly justified.

Just as in the planning of healthy meals, focusing on vegetables, whole-grain products, soy foods, and beans makes good sense in preparing appetizers. Still an all-time favorite of mine is a platter of raw veggies with a lowfat, soy-based dip. I'll admit it's almost a cliché, but it's hard to beat for nutritional value and visual appeal. Another good choice is a platter of just-ripe sliced pears and a colorful trail mix. It's nothing fancy, but it's quite satisfying and easy to prepare.

When it comes to appetizers, "easy to prepare" is my operative phrase. I can almost concur with the writer who said that "life's too short for stuffing mushrooms." Likewise, if I'm preparing a festive meal for 8 or 12 people, I'm not going to have the energy to fill and fold several dozen spring rolls as an hors d'oeuvre. Keeping appetizers simple is an excellent way to help stay sane over the holiday season.

A Few Instant Appetizers

If unexpected company catches you short on time to prepare a decent meal, let alone appetizers, here are some items to keep on hand during the holidays to serve as snacks and appetizers.

Veggies and dip: You do keep fresh raw vegetables in your crisper as a matter of course, don't you? Baby carrots, celery, and red bell peppers are especially convenient. For the holiday season, consider keeping a bottle or two of a prepared natural soy-based dressing that you can use as a dip. Cut up some veggies and pour some dressing into a shallow container, and you have an instant crowd -pleaser in a pinch. Keep whole-grain mini-pita breads in the freezer; thaw, warm, and cut into wedges when needed.

Roasted nuts and dried fruits: Combine your favorites to make tasty trail mixes.

Root Vegetable Chips: Now a staple in natural foods stores, these colorful chips are a taste treat. But go easy — they're not necessarily low in fat.

Tortilla Chips and Salsa: Not exactly seasonal, but is there anyone out there who doesn't love salsa and chips? To make this commonplace duo more festive, use natural stone-ground blue corn tortillas.

Here are some of my favorite appetizers to make and serve, all of which have become tried and true over the years.

"Tofuna" in Belgian Endives

(Serves 8 or more)

This appetizer is simple and elegant. Everyone loves this "tuna"-salad style tofu concoction, and serving it in Belgian endive leaves makes for a unique presentation.

  • One 8-ounce package baked marinated tofu
  • 1/2 cup soy mayonnaise (reduced fat is okay)
  • 1 large celery stalk, finely diced
  • 1 scallion, minced (optional)
  • 2 to 3 Belgian endives, as needed, leaves separated and rinsed

Using your hands, crumble the tofu finely into a mixing bowl. Add the mayonnaise, celery, and scallion, if desired, and mix well. Spoon about a tablespoon full of the mixture onto the wide end of each Belgian endive leaf and spread until it is used up, or as desired. Arrange on an attractive platter and serve at room temperature.

Total calories per serving: 113 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 57 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sweet and Savory Nuts and Pretzels

(Makes 5 cups)

This tasty snack is particularly nice to have on hand for guests to munch on during the winter holidays.

  • 2 to 3 Tablespoons soy sauce, to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons maple or brown rice syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 cups shelled dry-roasted unsalted nuts (a mixture of peanuts, cashews, and almonds is very good)
  • 3 cups small, salt-free pretzels

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Combine the soy sauce, syrup, cinnamon, and ginger in a large mixing bowl and stir well to combine. Stir in the nuts and pretzels and toss quickly to coat them evenly. Spread on a nonstick baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the coating is fairly dry.

Let cool, then break apart any nuts that have clumped together. Store in jars until needed.

Total calories per 1/2 cup: 253 Fat: 15 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 252 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Southwestern Tortilla Pizzas

(Makes 36 small wedges)

Here's another easy, crowd-pleasing finger food.

  • 2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 2 medium ripe tomatoes, diced
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • One 4-ounce can chopped mild green chilies
  • 6 fajita-size (6-inch) flour tortillas
  • 1 to 1-1/2 cups grated cheddar-style vegan soy cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the corn, tomatoes, bell pepper slices, and green chilies in a mixing bowl and toss together. Arrange the tortillas on two nonstick baking sheets. Divide the mixture among the tortillas, spreading evenly over the entire surface.

Sprinkle the pizzas with the soy cheese, dividing it among them evenly. Bake for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Let stand for 5 minutes, then remove to a cutting board and cut each into 6 wedges. Arrange on a platter or two and serve warm.

Total calories per wedge: 28 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 51 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Rosemary Roasted Mushrooms

(8 or more servings)

A delicious mushroom appetizer (pictured on the front cover) that can also be used as a first course.

  • 1-1/2 to 2 pounds large fresh crimini or "baby bella" mushrooms
  • 2 Tablespoons light olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce or teriyaki sauce, more or less to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Pita or other cocktail bread
  • Fresh rosemary and parsley sprigs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the stems off the mushrooms. Arrange the caps, smooth side up, in a lightly oiled oblong baking dish. Drizzle the oil over the mushrooms, then sprinkle with the onion, garlic, soy sauce or teriyaki, and rosemary, and season with a bit of salt and pepper.

Bake uncovered for 40 minutes. Serve warm on a large platter, surrounded by cocktail breads or warm pita wedges. Garnish the edge of the platter with fresh rosemary and parsley sprigs. Provide cocktail toothpicks for spearing the mushrooms.

Mushrooms only:

Total calories per serving: 63 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 159 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

White Bean and Sun-dried Tomato PÂTÉ

(Makes about 2 cups)

This makes a classy appetizer, served with whole grain crackers or crispbreads. To give it a festive look, serve in a hollowed out bread "bowl" (see front cover).

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-1/2 cups well-cooked cannellini or navy beans, drained
  • 1/4 cup oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 to 3 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions and sauté over moderate heat until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the onion is just beginning to brown. Combine the onion mixture with all the remaining ingredients, except the salt and pepper, in the container of a food processor and process until completely smooth. Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of water or so, to loosen the consistency. Stop and scrape down the sides as needed.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pat into an attractive shallow crock to serve, or into a bread "bowl" as suggested above. Place on a large platter and surround with whole grain crackers and crispbreads.

Total calories per 1/4 cup: 80 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Spinach and Cucumber Spread

(Makes about 2 cups)

Delicious served with crispbreads and whole grain crackers, this spread will be especially appreciated by those who eat no dairy products.

  • 1/2 cup finely chopped, seeded cucumber
  • One 12.3-ounce package firm silken tofu
  • One 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed, moisture completely squeezed out
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 scallion, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 teaspoon seasoned salt, or more or less to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

Spread the chopped cucumber over two or three layers of paper towel. Cover with another two layers, then place a cutting board or some other weight on top. Let stand for 30 minutes or so.

Combine the remaining ingredients in the container of a food processor or blender. Process until the spinach and tofu are well incorporated. Transfer to a serving bowl and stir in the cucumber. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Total calories per 1/4 cup: 44 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 321 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Scallion Pancakes

(Makes about two dozen 2- to 3-inch pancakes)

Adults and children enjoy these delicious, finger-sized pancakes. Double the recipe to serve a bigger crowd.

  • 1 cup whole-grain flour (whole wheat, kamut, spelt, or a combination)
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup thinly sliced scallions
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame seeds (optional)
  • Olive oil

Combine flour, water, salt, scallions, and sesame seeds, if desired, in a mixing bowl. Whisk together until smooth.

Lightly oil a large griddle and ladle the batter on in small quantities (1/8-cup is about right) to form 3-inch pancakes. Cook on both sides until golden brown. Remove to a plate and cover while cooking the remaining pancakes.

Arrange in concentric circles on a large platter and serve warm or at room temperature.

Total calories per pancake: 50 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 99 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Cool Refried Bean Pinwheels

(Serves 8 or more)

You can make this delightful finger-food an hour or two ahead of time, then cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature until needed.

  • One 16-ounce can spicy fat-free refried beans
  • 4 rectangular lavash wraps, lightly warmed
  • Soy mayonnaise, as needed
  • 2 to 3 plum tomatoes, very thinly sliced
  • 2 roasted red peppers (from a jar), drained well and very thinly sliced
  • Finely shredded lettuce, as needed
  • Cherry tomatoes and black olives for garnish

Heat the refried beans in a saucepan with about 1/4-cup of water, just until they are warm (not hot) and smooth.

Spread the wraps thinly with the mayonnaise, then with the refried beans. Top with a single layer of tomatoes, then of the peppers, placed here and there, followed by an even sprinkling of the lettuce.

Wrap snugly and cut each wrap crosswise into 8 sections. Arrange cut side up on a platter. Garnish the edge of the platter with cherry tomatoes and olives. Serve at room temperature.

Total calories per pinwheel: 125 Fat: 1.5 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 470 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Baked Barbecue-flavored Tofu Nuggets

(Serves 8 or more)

This is so simple that it barely qualifies as a recipe! But it is invariably a huge hit, and makes believers out of tofu skeptics.

Two 16-ounce tubs extra-firm tofu 1 cup natural lowfat barbecue sauce, or as needed Curly parsley for garnish

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cut the tofu 1/2-inch thick, and blot well between clean tea-towels or several layers of paper towel. Cut the slices into dice-sized chunks.

Stir together gently with the barbecue sauce in a mixing bowl, and transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet or roasting pan.

Bake for 15 minutes, then stir and bake for another 10 minutes. Arrange on attractive serving platter and garnish with parsley. Provide cocktail toothpicks for serving.

Total calories per serving: 132 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 266 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sweet and Sour Quick-pickled Vegetables

(Makes 5 cups)

This keeps well for up to two weeks in the refrigerator, and so is handy for serving to spontaneous company. The yield is generous enough for you to pack a pint jar to give as a gift when visiting others.

  • 1 cup baby carrots
  • 1 heaping cup bite-sized cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup string beans, trimmed, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 1 small zucchini, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • One l6-ounce jar pearl onions, drained, liquid reserved


  • Liquid from pearl onions, plus enough water to make 1 1/2 cups
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup undiluted apple juice concentrate
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano

Steam the carrots, cauliflower, and string beans briefly until just tender-crisp. Rinse under cold water until they are completely cool. Combine with the zucchini and pearl onions in a mixing bowl and stir together.

Stir the marinade ingredients together in a mixing bowl until thoroughly combined. Divide the marinade between two 1-quart jars. Divide the vegetables between the jars. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.

Total calories per 1/2 cup: 48 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 248 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Nava Atlas is the author of several vegetarian cookbooks, most recently, The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet.