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

Whether it's the Middle Eastern meze, the Chinese dim sum, or the Spanish tapas, one of the biggest trends in dining out is feasting on little dishes. What's more surprising, perhaps, than this growing acceptance of these exotic microfoods, is the fact that eating in this way can actually be healthy.

"Smaller plates have evolved in different cultures through the years for many reasons," says Timothy S. Harlan, MD, who is the well-known "Dr. Gourmet" chef and author of several cookbooks, including It's Heartly Fare. "The most well-known of these dishes might be tapas, which are said to have originated as a slice of complementary ham placed atop a wine glass by bar owners (tapas meaning "to top" in Spanish)."

The salty ham was felt to encourage patrons thirst, Harlan says, adding that it may have been that the slice of ham kept insects out of the glass.

Flavorful, Surprising

Over the years, more and more small dishes evolved in Spain and the variations are now endless, Harlan says. Much of the variety likely developed as a consequence of competition among bar owners with the foods full of complex flavors designed to surprise the mouth.

Moreover, he adds, "little things are sexy: Mini Coopers, the iPod mini, tiny cell phones. Food is no different. There's something so fun about an appetizer arranged perfectly on a plate like a piece of artwork."

These small dishes, "no matter what culture they started in -- Spanish, Middle Eastern, or Chinese -- are meant to be enjoyed as a meal, not just as appetizers," said Bettye Nowlin, a registered dietitian in private practice in Los Angeles and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "What we see here in the U.S. lately is these traditional eating styles gaining popularity. And these meals can be healthy as long as you don't eat you don't treat them like appetizers and then eat them on top of" another meal.

"The idea of small portions of food as a meal is a great way to manage weight," said Nancy Saunders, PDt, a registered dietitian for the Chateauguay Valley Regional High School in Ormstown, Quebec, Canada, which won the 2004 Kino Quebec "École Active" culinary prize. "The 'supersize me' meals are contributing to obesity. Downsizing the portion size and keeping the variety makes a great combination."

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