What’s the secret to hosting a memorable dinner party? For 29-year-old Sarah Waybright, it’s a trifecta of good company, good food and good wine — plus a menu that won’t leave guests feeling sick, stuffed or guilt-ridden.

“When you think about ‘treating’ yourself, it’s about instant gratification,” says Waybright, a registered dietitian and the woman behind WhyFoodWorks, a healthful dinner-party service based in Washington. “You go to a wedding, a birthday party or dinner at someone’s house and everything looks delicious, then you overeat and feel (terrible) at the end of the night. But you don’t have to binge to celebrate.”

Through WhyFoodWorks events — which feel like a cooking show in your kitchen — Waybright aims to teach people how to balance flavor with nutrition and social interaction with personal well-being. Wine pairings and dessert, such as a slice of grain-free Coconut “Cheesefake,” keep the educational meals lively and festive.

“I’m a notoriously bad cook among my friends,” says Jennifer Utz, 30, a Virginia resident who recently hosted a group of girlfriends for one of Waybright’s dinner parties. “I thought it would be a good way to learn how to make something other than mac and cheese.”

Waybright walked the group through preparing bacon-wrapped tilapia and taught the women kitchen basics, such as how to cut an onion. One of the guests spent the following week looking for chia seeds to re-create Waybright’s vanilla pudding, a dessert that the group agreed tasted more decadent than its nutrition profile would suggest.

Each guest went home with a spice blend and printouts of the recipes. “Each recipe is replicable. This is something you can do, something you can use and enjoy in your everyday life,” Waybright says.

The women had so much fun, they reconvened less than a week later at another friend’s house for a second dinner party.

“I love you guys, but weekly dinner parties might be a bit much,” Waybright joked, the whirr of a high-powered blender nearly drowning out her words as she prepared an avocado-cucumber gazpacho.

“You hear so much about healthy cooking, and nobody knows how to do it,” Utz says. “That’s where Sarah comes in.”

There’s no denying that the definition of “healthy cooking” is hotly debated. Some people swear by low-fat diets, while others profess that veganism, paleo or low-carb is the key to good health. Waybright, who grew up on a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where each meal was home-cooked and dessert involved running out to pick raspberries fresh off the bush, is not nearly so militant.

“There’s not a single diet that’s perfect for everybody,” she says. “I don’t think everyone should be vegetarian. I don’t think everyone should be paleo. I don’t think anyone should be eating the standard American diet (of processed food and refined carbohydrates and fats). “But Eskimos eat up to 70 percent fat and some tribes in the Amazon eat up to 70 percent carbs. Neither of them is wrong.”

Waybright uses the dinner parties as a vehicle to discuss different options with the hope of helping people figure out what works best for them. She also challenges guests to question the merit of the food they’re putting in their mouths.

“For some people, food is a means to an end. It’s fuel,” she says. “Then you have other people for whom nutrition is way down on the list. It’s about culture and celebration. For me, the food has to be delicious. But it’s got to be more than that. The food has to offer something. It has to bring something to the table, nutritionally.

“I wouldn’t eat something just because it’s what I want in the moment. At the same time, I won’t eat something just because it’s good for me.”

The dinner parties cost $60 per guest, with an optional $8 wine pairing. For every 10 events she books, Waybright donates a dinner party to a group that can’t afford it.

She acknowledges that some people might view having a dietitian cook for them as guilt-inducing, but she stresses that guilt has no place in her view of food.

“This isn’t prescriptive, and there’s no shaming,” she says. “I won’t come in and say, ‘Eat this, not that.’ I don’t talk about weight loss. It’s about helping people make better decisions. This is about food.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.