Summer food and fun

It seems like every summer is jam-packed with special events and parties. If you want to be sure your gatherings are great, plan ahead.

Set up your environment to feature budget friendly, healthy, easy to prepare and serve food, to include all the food groups, while keeping the atmosphere light. You want to be sure you and all your guests focus on having fun. The best way to do that is to keep it simple.

While food and beverages are usually a big part of any event, everything doesn’t have to revolve around them. Instead, put more effort into getting people up, moving and enjoying each other. Movement should be part of every event, because being physically active makes everyone feel good. Dancing, playing active games, even giggling and wiggling with the tiny babies, adds tons of fun to any gathering.

You can organize active games for people of all ages, or you can simply arrange the supplies needed for different activities and let people choose what they like. Some folks will get up and involved if they see some fun equipment set up, like a badminton net or croquet set, but just having a ball available may be all it takes to get people going. Or play some jazzy music and start dancing. You’ll be surprised how many people will start dancing with you.

Even if people don’t want to engage in a group activity, like a softball game or playing horseshoes, if you set up your party area well, people will be more likely to get up, walk around, mingle and talk more.

If you really want to get people talking, surprise them with the foods and beverages you serve. People will be especially grateful if you reduce the amount of calories in those foods, because so many celebrations feature dips, salads, and casseroles made with calorie-dense ingredients like full fat mayonnaise or sour cream. Those recipes won’t suffer, and nobody will notice a difference in taste if you swap out the full fat ingredients for lower fat versions. Simply making a few small changes in your old recipes can make a world of difference.

Change up a favorite casserole by replacing the crumb or potato chip topping with something healthier like a sprinkle of fresh herbs, green onions or almonds. It adds just that little extra something that wows.

You can also use whole grains and vegetables to make a savory, healthy salad that’s much more tasty and interesting than a dull pasta or potato salad.

Make sure the foods and beverages you serve look festive. Set out whole-grain crackers and vegetables with a spicy bean dip. Cut those vegetables into fun shapes or arrange them on a platter in the shape of something fun, like a sun, animal or flower.

To save money, buy in-season produce. It costs less and tastes better. For other foods, it really does pay to plan in advance, because you’ll be more likely to find and buy the foods you want to serve when they’re on sale.

It’s also fun to try something new. Look for light recipes and reasonably priced ingredients for dishes from other cultures to make your celebration extra special.

Instead of offering your guests buckets full of soda pop loaded with calories, offer more healthy thirst quenchers. Many people prefer water these days. In hot weather it is much more refreshing than a sugary drink. If you want to make it more fun or festive, make some fun ice cubes from 100 percent juice or add berries or slices of fruit to the water. If you want to offer something especially exciting, make a lower calorie “float” by simply adding a scoop of low-fat sorbet to calorie free seltzer water.

As you wrap up your planning, remember it’s not necessary to decorate every dessert with sugary coatings, frostings or sprinkles. Instead, decorate more of them with berries, nuts or seeds. It’s amazing how much more appealing and refreshing desserts can look if you top them simply with a few slices of fresh fruits like nectarines, peaches or bananas. You could also serve fruit kabobs for dessert, or create a sweet parfait by layering yogurt and fruit.

No matter what you decide to serve, as you plan the menu take a few extra minutes to think of ways to cut back on sugar, salt, and fat.

You may also want to encourage guests to bring a healthy prepared dish, keep the kids active and moving, cor help you with the clean up.

Finally, make sure everyone takes the time to savor the food. If people pay attention to the taste of each bite, they’ll eat less and enjoy it more. Be a cheerleader for healthy habits, and if you really care about kids, you know that it’s never too early for adults to set a good example. Children follow what the adults around them do – especially at parties.

Make sure your summer is filled with plenty of opportunities to enjoy friends and family; healthy food and loads of fun physical activities. You might want to try the Layered Black Bean Dip or Veggie Dip recipe printed below.

Find delicious party worthy recipes and nutrition information at If you’d like even more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Learn ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County is a community-based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For more information , call 716-664-9502 ext. 217 or visit our website at

Remember that if you, or people you know, are struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program which helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at, or contact your local social services office.

Patty Hammond leads family and consumer science programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. She writes monthly for the OBSERVER.

Layered Black Bean Dip


1 can black beans (15 ounce, drained and rinsed)

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup salsa (thick and chunky)

1/2 cup sour cream (light)

1/4 cup green onion (chopped)

2 ounces cheddar cheese, reduced fat (grated)


1. Mash beans and mix with onion powder, dried oregano, garlic powder and cayenne pepper. Spread on a serving dish.

2. Top with salsa, sour cream, green onions and grated cheese.

Yield: 16 servings

Cost: per recipe: $2.48 / per serving: $0.15

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 2 tablespoons (39 ounces) 40 Calories, 15 Calories from Fat, 1.5g Total Fat, 1g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 5mg Cholesterol, 150mg Sodium, 4g Total Carbohydrate, 1g Dietary Fiber, 0g Sugars, 2g Protein, 2% Vitamin A, 6% Calcium, 0% Vitamin C, 2% Iron

Source: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County, Good Food Cookbook

Veggie Dip


1 cup cottage cheese

1 tablespoon onion (chopped very fine)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons parsley flakes


1. Measure cottage cheese and put in bowl or blender.

2. Beat with a fork or mixer, or in a blender, until cottage cheese is smooth.

3. Add the other ingredients. Stir together.

4. Store the dip in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours to let the flavors blend.

Yield: 8 servings

Note: Serve with slices of row vegetables such as carrots, celery, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, turnips, cauliflower, or green pepper.

Cost: per recipe: $1.37 / per serving: $0.17

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 2 tablespoons / 1/8 of recipe (30g), 20 Calories, 5 Calories from Fat, 0g Total Fat, 0g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 190mg Sodium, 1g Total Carbohydrate, 0g Dietary Fiber, 1g Sugars, 4g Protein, 0% Vitamin A, 2% Calcium, 2% Vitamin C, 0% Iron

Source: Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Program, Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network Website Recipes