A little bit of cheese can go a long way to add flavor to these holiday party foods.

Base your dips on such low-fat items as skim-milk ricotta cheese with frozen spinach or canned beans with green chilies to pare calories and add worthwhile nutrients.Then flavor the mixtures with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese and sharp Cheddar. It's all a matter of proportions. Even with small amounts of good-quality cheeses, you still get great taste without guilt about calories and fat.

Dippers are as important as the dips, of course, when it comes to saving calories.

Chips and crackers are convenient as finger foods, but most are high in fat content. If they're also very salty, that leads guests to drink more, another unhealthy and high-cal situation if alcohol is flowing freely.

More nutritious choices for dippers include bagel chips, toasted pita-bread triangles and chunks of bread.

A popular conveyance for spinach dip is a round loaf of unsliced bread, so the inner part of the loaf can be pulled out and torn into bite-size chunks.

To prepare toasted pita bread triangles, divide round loaves of pita in half to form two circles. Brush inner sides lightly with olive oil and cut into triangles with kitchen shears. Toast on a baking sheet in a moderate oven until crisp and slightly curled.

As a variation, you can sprinkle pita triangles with grated Parmesan cheese to flavor the pita chips before baking, if you're not serving them plain along with a dip.

The most nutritious dippers of all are raw fruits and vegetables, but try to be imaginative. Slices of raw turnip and jicama are wonderful with spinach or bean dips.

Raw broccoli stems, icicle radishes (or daikon) can be added to the usual assortment of carrot and celery sticks.

Cut cherry tomatoes in half for safer eating. Some enjoy raw asparagus if the spears are slender. Chunks of nappa cabbage, spears of Belgian endive and cucumber chips are other good choices.

Zucchini is rather bland, but rounds of the green vegetable are more interesting with a spoonful of hot bean dip on top.

Don't forget to shop for "lite" versions of corn chips, mini rice cakes and snack crackers.

Party rye and thin pumpernickel bread can be cut into small pieces, too, and arranged on dipping platters.

Hot Spinach Dip

2 cups (15 ounces) ricotta cheese

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained

1/4 pound ham, diced

3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1 round loaf of bread, unsliced Yield: 6 cups dip

Prep time: 30 minutes

Bake time: 1 1/4 hours

In food processor, blender or electric mixer, combine ricotta and sour cream; process until smooth. Stir in thawed, drained spinach, ham, Parmesan and green onions.

Cut a 1-inch slice off top of bread; reserve. Remove bread from inside loaf, retaining a 3/4-inch shell. Cut bread from inside loaf into bite-size cubes.

Pour cheese mixture into bread shell set on a rimmed baking sheet. Replace bread top and wrap in foil. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 11/4 hours or until heated through. Arrange bread loaf and bread cubes on a large serving platter.- From Sargento Cheese Co. of Wisconsin.

Rio Grande Dip

1 (16-ounce) can pork and beans, pureed

2 tablespoons mild green chilies

1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke

4 slices crisp bacon, crumbled, or diced turkey ham Yield: About 21/2 cups

Prep time: 20 minutes

Whirl beans in blender or food processor, or mash with a potato masher. Transfer to a double boiler or chafing dish or slow cooker. Heat, adding chopped chilies, cheese, garlic salt, chili powder, vinegar, Worcestershire and liquid smoke. Stir in bacon bits. Mixture may also be microwave-heated. Serve warm with corn chips, mini taco shells, party rye bread, crackers, jicama or zucchini rounds.