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Unexpected holiday guests at the door? Don’t panic

Liz Weiss (left at bowl) and Janice Newell Bissex in the kitchen at Newell Bissex's home with guests (from left) Jeanne Arsenault of Peabody, Eileen Leonard of London, Hillary Wright of Arlington, Ginni Wallace of Danvers, and Liz Ward of Reading. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Smack dab in the middle of the holiday chaos, the doorbell rings. Or your phone pings with a text: “Hi. In the neighborhood. OK to drop in for a quick hello?”

Unexpected guests. They can happen at any time.

After a swift kick to hide loose socks and shoes under the couch, a swipe of the kitchen counter, and a hurried glance at the clock, you check the shelves and fridge. What’s there to grab and toss together in a hurry, without much fuss? Something more substantial than a crumpled bag of potato chips?

Swooping in to save the day (or night) are the food fairy godmothers, Janice Newell Bissex of Melrose and Liz Weiss of Lexington. Both are registered dietitians who have become two experts on family nutrition. Founders of the blog Meal Makeover Moms’ Kitchen, they are also the authors of multiple cookbooks.


Though both are busy mothers of two kids, they fear not the unexpected guest.

“People don’t expect to eat, especially on short notice,” Newell Bissex said. “But you want to serve them something, right?”

The key is a few easy recipes, all created from staples you can keep on hand: sun-dried tomato tuna bites, holiday rice and tuna cakes, cinnamon-spiced roasted walnuts, and butternut squash soup shooters, all whipped together while wine is poured and the guests mingle.

The two demonstrated just how easy the four recipes are to make during a get-together at Newell Bissex’s home.

As the doorbell rang, Newell Bissex welcomed Ginni Wallace of Danvers; Liz Ward of Reading; Hillary Wright of Arlington; Eileen Leonard, originally from Winchester, in from London for the holidays; Jeanne Arsenault of Peabody; Mary Hayward of Melrose; and Lisa and Rick Pearl of Concord.

While coats were hung and wine glasses filled, Weiss decorated a plate for an appetizer, illustrating another lesson.


Not having much on hand to serve doesn’t mean it can’t look pretty. Weiss grabbed a bouquet of dill and one lemon, then sliced them up to garnish a plate.

“You just want to make the plate look more festive,” Weiss said, noting that any herbs will do.

Another idea? Repurpose bowls, cups, or platters.

Holding up a small glass cup from a punch bowl set, Weiss smiled. “Everyone has these cute little punch bowl cups that you never use. Serve soup in them.

“All I did was open this box of butternut squash soup, heated it up, and added a dollop of plain Greek yogurt,” she said. “The soup might be out of a box, but will anyone care when it’s ladled out into the pretty punch bowl cups, then topped or swirled with Greek yogurt, and some chopped, spiced walnuts?”

Sun-dried tomato tuna bites are a quick and easy appetizer. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Tuna, a pantry staple, was transformed within minutes into sun-dried tomato tuna bites by simply mixing together light mayonnaise and flavored tuna. (They used Bumble Bee Albacore Tuna with Sundried Tomatoes & Olive Oil, available at major supermarkets), spooning it onto mini, whole-grain crackers, decorating each with thin slivers of roasted red pepper criss-crossed on top, and served on the herb-lemon trimmed plate.

A little more involved were the holiday rice and tuna cakes, a version of crab cakes that’s just as delicious, but easier. The cooks gleefully admitted “cheating” again, this time using a microwavable pouch of the healthy grain quinoa, then mixing the contents with tuna, eggs, grated Parmesan cheese, and some dried Italian seasoning. Newell Bissex molded small cakes, then sautéed them in a skillet. Served with a topping of red pasta sauce and the green of fresh thyme or basil, the appetizer looked absolutely festive.


Noticeably absent were comments on the healthiness of the small plates, but more on the flavor, convenience, and ease of cooking recipes on short notice.

“I like the tuna rice cakes the best,” Wallace said. “It made me want to check out the flavored tunas. I usually have plain tuna on hand.”

Newell Bissex smiled at making another convert to healthier eating. “That’s from the proteins and good omega-3 fats versus filling up on the empty carbs and salt in junk food, then feeling gross the next week,” she said.

For a sweet ending to the party, Weiss whipped up a batch of spiced walnuts (you can use almonds or pecans, instead) to satisfy guests’ desire for a little sweet/salty/crunchy something. Newell Bissex ripped open a bag of chocolate bark.

“See?” she said. “It doesn’t have to be fancy.”

Tips from the Moms

■  Make some items ahead of time. The spiced nuts can be stored in an airtight container. Tuna cakes can be made and stored in the freezer, then heated up when guests arrive.

■  Stock your pantry and fridge. Be a good scout and buy staples like saltines or rice crackers (in case guests are gluten-free), blocks of cheese, frozen shrimp, red sauce, tuna, dried herbs, and chocolate bark.


■  Holiday eating can be healthy. Skip the fatty, salty chips. Substitute with spiced nuts.

■  Entertaining doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. Have fully prepared items like a box of soup on hand that you can heat up and garnish with herbs or plain yogurt.

■  For detailed recipes, go to the “holiday appetizer recipes pantry” blog post at mealmakeovermoms.com.

Janice Newell Bissex (left) and Liz Weiss check the pantry for ingredients. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathy@kathyshielstully.com.