What’s the secret to a memorable dinner party? For 29-year-old Sarah Waybright, it’s a trifecta of good company, good food and good wine — plus a menu that won’t leave guests feeling sick, stuffed or guilt-ridden.
“When you think about ‘treating’ yourself, it’s about instant gratification,” says Waybright, a registered dietitian and the woman behind WhyFoodWorks, a healthful dinner party service in Washington. “You go to a wedding, a birthday party or dinner at someone’s house and everything looks delicious, then you overeat and feel [terrible] at the end of the night. But you don’t have to binge to celebrate.”
Through WhyFoodWorks events — which feel like a cooking show in your kitchen — Waybright aims to teach people how to balance flavor with nutrition and social interaction with personal well-being. Wine pairings and dessert, such as a slice of grain-free Coconut “Cheesefake,” keep the educational meals lively and festive.
“I’m a notoriously bad cook among my friends,” says Jennifer Utz, 30, a Virginia resident who recently hosted a group of girlfriends for one of Waybright’s dinner parties. “I thought it would be a good way to learn how to make something other than mac and cheese.”
Waybright walked the group through preparing bacon-wrapped tilapia and taught the women kitchen basics, such as how to cut an onion. One of the guests spent the following week looking for chia seeds to re-create Waybright’s vanilla pudding, a dessert that the group agreed tasted more decadent than its nutrition profile would suggest.
Each guest went home with a spice blend and printouts of the recipes. “Each recipe is replicable. This is something you can do, something you can use and enjoy in your everyday life,” Waybright says.
The women had so much fun, they reconvened less than a week later at another friend’s house for a second dinner party.
“I love you guys, but weekly dinner parties might be a bit much,” Waybright joked, the whirr of a high-powered blender nearly drowning out her words as she prepared an avocado-cucumber gazpacho.
“You hear so much about healthy cooking, and nobody knows how to do it,” Utz says. “That’s where Sarah comes in.”
There’s no denying that the definition of “healthy cooking” is hotly debated. Some people swear by low-fat diets, while others profess that veganism, paleo or low-carb is the key to good health. Waybright, who grew up on a farm in Gettysburg, Pa., where each meal was home-cooked and dessert involved running out to pick raspberries fresh off the bush, is not nearly so militant.
“There’s not a single diet that’s perfect for everybody,” she says. “I don’t think everyone should be vegetarian. I don’t think everyone should be paleo. I don’t think anyone should be eating the standard American diet” of processed food and refined carbohydrates and fats. “But Eskimos eat up to 70 percent fat and some tribes in the Amazon eat up to 70 percent carbs. Neither of them is wrong.”
Waybright uses the dinner parties as a vehicle to discuss different options with the hope of helping people figure out what works best for them. She also challenges guests to question the merit of the food they’re putting in their mouths.
“For some people, food is a means to an end. It’s fuel,” she says. “Then you have other people for whom nutrition is way down on the list. It’s about culture and celebration. For me, the food has to be delicious. But it’s got to be more than that. The food has to offer something. It has to bring something to the table, nutritionally.
“I wouldn’t eat something just because it’s what I want in the moment. At the same time, I won’t eat something just because it’s good for me.”
The dinner parties cost $60 per guest, with an optional $8 wine pairing. For every 10 events she books, Waybright donates a dinner party to a group that can’t afford it.
She acknowledges that some people might view having a dietitian cook for them as guilt-inducing, but she stresses that guilt has no place in her view of food.
“This isn’t prescriptive, and there’s no shaming,” she says. “I won’t come in and say, ‘Eat this, not that.’ I don’t talk about weight loss. It’s about helping people make better decisions. This is about food.”
This no-bake dessert is considerably lighter but no less delicious than its cheesecake inspiration. Tangy Greek yogurt, sweet shredded coconut and unflavored gelatin take the place of a traditional cream cheese filling, and almonds and dates replace a butter-laden graham cracker crust. These nutrition-heavy ingredients combine to form an unexpectedly decadent, grain-free treat.
The cake needs to be refrigerated for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
For the crust:
- 16 pitted dates, coarsely chopped
- 2 cups (skinless) slivered almonds
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil (solidified)
For the filling:
- 1 cup coconut water
- Juice from 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons (2 packets) unflavored powdered gelatin
- 2 cups plain low-fat Greek-style yogurt
- 1 1/2 cups shredded sweetened coconut
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the crust: Have a 9-inch springform pan at hand.
Combine the dates, almonds and coconut oil in a food processor; pulse until well incorporated. Press the mixture into the bottom of the springform pan; use a piece of wax paper to do this if you don’t want to get your hands sticky. Wipe out the food processor bowl.
For the filling: Heat the coconut water in a microwave-safe bowl on HIGH for a few seconds, until it is hot (but not boiling). Add the lemon juice, then stir in the powdered gelatin until it has dissolved.
Combine the yogurt, coconut and vanilla extract in the food processor; pulse to blend, then add the gelatin mixture and puree until smooth. Pour on top of the crust, leveling the surface.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
To serve, dip a knife into very hot water before cutting each piece. 10 to 12 servings.
Per serving (based on 12): 240 calories, 10 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 40 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 14 grams sugar
— Adapted by Sarah Waybright of WhyFoodWorks, from recipes at www.barerootgirl.com and www.bonappetit.com.