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Little Dishes, Big Health Benefits

Dining on small plates is emerging as a big hit and can actually be healthy, too.

Beware Excess Sodium

Some tapas, as well as meza and dim sum, are high in fat and calories and some have too much sodium.

"Interestingly, this is not true of all tapas and most dishes are very good for you," says Harlan. "There are a myriad of recipes that use fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and anchovies. While these are higher in fat, they do contain high amounts of the good omega-3 fats, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke."

Nuts and olives containing healthy fats also predominate in Spanish cuisine, he notes. Likewise, olive oil is the primary fat used for cooking and marinating.

"The benefits of monounsaturated fats have been well established in a healthy diet," he says.

Make Them at Home

Making your own steamed dumplings, a kind of dim sum, is fun and easy. A quick Internet search of the topic "healthy steamed dumplings" will yield dozens of simple recipes. Some are vegetarian but using shrimp, lean pork, and chicken are great choices as well.

Dipping sauces made with reduced-sodium soy sauce make for a perfect addition to an Asian meal.

Middle Eastern dishes are also designed to be served as small dishes, Harlan says. There are great hummus recipes that use less fat by reducing the amount of tahini (sesame seed butter) and using other ingredients such as yogurt.

Various recipes are available that use ingredients other than chickpeas as the base such as black beans or red peppers; coupled with some tabbouleh, minted cucumbers in yogurt, a few stuffed grape leaves, and pita bread, this can make for a delicious and healthy meal.

Tips for Healthy "Little Dishes"

1. Don't be afraid to ask questions at a restaurant, says Nowlin. "Black bean sauce and oyster sauce are high in sodium, and people with high blood pressure should ask about sodium content in the foods they're served."

2. Avoid breaded or deep-fried foods. Instead choose steamed, baked, or grilled dishes and those dishes made from vegetables, nuts, and seafood.

3. "Remember that these small dishes should replace dinner," she points out. "Don't treat small-dish meals as appetizers."

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