Little Dishes, Big Health Benefits

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

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
4 min read

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."