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Appealing appetizers: with some thought and careful selection, you can enjoy social gatherings without fearing weight gain.

Many social events revolve around food, often fatty, sugar-laden desserts. However, the nutritionally savvy need not miss out on scrumptious socializing. Instead of succumbing to demoralizing decadence, slow down and start with appetizers. Whether you are the host or guest, the following five steps will show how you can enjoy socializing around starters without feeling deprived or different.

1) Start at the Beginning. Fudgy chocolate, countless cookies and sugar-weighted sweets are much easier to resist or eat in moderation, when you've filled up on healthy food first. Begin with slimming starters. Select good-for-you options and savor them as a first course, even at a potluck luncheon at work.

2) Slow Down. The point of parties is to socialize, not just stuff your face. Many of you are harried with stress, work and other activities, but take a breath and savor your visiting time. Although friends and family are important, so are your taste buds. Take your time and satisfy your appetite by starting with bite-sized snacks.

3) Make a Statement. Gorgeously displayed appetizers are excellent conversation starters. Set a slow cooker of low-fat bean dip into a festive pinata, garnish a plate with lemon rings or wrap the dish with a bow. Use bold colors, interesting textures and the unexpected to make something healthy look heavenly. You won't feel like a health nerd when your dish is the talk of the table.

4) Be Prepared. If you are planning the menu, stretch the evening socialization by including a healthy dish that can be enjoyed by your guests, while you put the finishing touches on dinner or wait for other guests to arrive. If you will be sampling someone else's buffet, offer to bring a fruit or veggie plate, which guarantees you a healthy way to curb hunger.

5) Carry Yourself with Confidence. Don't slump your shoulders and hide in a corner, nibbling celery, in an attempt to avoid the abundant fatty and sugary temptations. Be a trendsetter by volunteering to bring something appealing that won't make using a scale appalling. Rave about the healthy snacks aunt Pam brings to the family feast. Fan your friends' egos when they offer you nutritious yummies.

Social gatherings can be tough on the physique, but feeding your body good fuel is smart. You deserve a great body, so lift your head, toss your shoulders back and smile, knowing a little restraint curbs remorse in the future.

Marvelous Mushroom Caps

This recipe is from my cookbook and everyone loves it! Get them while they are hot and before they are gone.

* 1 lb Italian sausage or 1 pkg turkey bacon

* 16 oz fat-flee cream cheese, softened

* 20 oz button mushrooms

* 1 1/2 cups low-fat Monterey Jack cheese, grated

* Dried parsley

Preheat oven to 350[degrees]F. Cook sausage or bacon until well done. Drain grease and pat dry. Crumble meat into small pieces. Add cream cheese to meat and mix well. Wash and remove stems from mushrooms. Place mushroom caps top side down in a greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Fill each with cream cheese mixture. Press grated cheese on top of each mushroom filling. Sprinkle with parsley. Bake for 15 minutes or until cheese melts. Serve immediately.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Makes: 10 to 12 servings

Southwest Bean Dip

This could be a meal! It's delicious, filling, warmly comforting and easy to double.

* 1 can fat-free refried beans

* 1 cup low-fat sour cream

* 1 cup low-fat Cheddar cheese

* 1 cup salsa

* 1/4 cup skim or low-fat milk

* Baked tortilla chips

Combine all ingredients, except the chips, in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook for five minutes, stirring often. Serve in a small slow cooker to keep it warm.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Makes: 4 cups

Veggie Feast

With more than 13 million vegetarians living in the United States, chances are one is coming to your party. Party Foods for Vegetarians (Laurel Glen; $22.45) by Celia Brooks Brown can help you accommodate these guests, offer healthy options or round out a rich feast. With over 80 tasty, easy-to-prepare recipes, Party Foods for Vegetarians takes some of the stress out of entertaining.

--R.G.

Crudite Crunchies

Crudites are simply raw vegetables. The vibrant colors are attractive and you can't beat fresh produce for health. If you are pressed for time, buy prepared vegetables.

* Kale or leaf lettuce

* Assorted green and red vegetables (e.g., radishes, celery, red bell peppers, broccoli, etc.)

* Dynamic Dip (see below)

Line serving platter with kale or lettuce. Wash and cut the vegetables into easy-to-nibble slices. Pour dip into a decorative serving bowl and place on serving platter. Arrange the vegetables around the dip, alternating red and green colors.

For the Dynamic Dip, try any of these options:

* Use a low-fat salad dressing, such as buttermilk or honey mustard.

* Add crumbled turkey bacon to low-fat buttermilk dressing or sour cream.

* Blend onion soup mix into low-fat sour cream.

* Blend equal amounts of spinach, low-fat Cheddar cheese, low-fat sour cream and cook for 15 minutes. Chill.

Fabulous Fruit Dip

This dip satisfies a sweet craving without piling on pounds. I've received lots of compliments on this quick and easy fruit dip.

* 8 oz fat-free cream cheese

* 7 oz marshmallow creme

* Sliced apples, strawberries, pears, grapes or other fruits

Soften cream cheese. Mix cream cheese and marshmallow creme with an electric mixer until smooth. Pour into a decorative dip bowl. Cover and chill. Serve with sliced fruit.

Preparation time: less than five minutes and chill time

Makes: 2 cups

Denis' Thomas is a freelance writer and radio disc jockey in Woodbury, Tennessee, where she resides with her husband. She is the author of the cookbook Newly Wed and Newly Cooking. Her Web site is www.denisthomas.com.
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Author:Thomas, Denis'
Publication:American Fitness
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:961
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