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Best and worst foods for your next sizzling cookout

Posted July 05, 2021 by Laura Ilg RD, LD

veggies on the grill

Nothing says summer like the classic American barbeque: hamburgers, hot dogs and macaroni salad with berry pie for dessert. Cookouts with family and friends are a favorite summer pastime to enjoy good food, the great outdoors and warmer temperatures.

But considering on average a person consumes upwards of 2,000 calories on typical barbeque fare, it’s not a bad idea to switch up this year’s cookouts to include healthier options. Who said cookouts had to be unhealthy to taste good anyways.

Fresh fruits and veggies will brighten up your plate, cut the fat and pack your meal with vitamins and minerals. Plus, homemade sides and condiments will kick up the flavor and add a twist to the classics for memorable gatherings. The key is eating foods that are less processed and closer to their natural states to avoid added sodium, fat and sugar.

Summa Health offers the best and worst foods to eat at your next cookout this season. With these ideas to add more color and nutrients to your plate without compromising on flavor, your backyard barbeque can’t help but go off with a big bang this summer.

Healthy proteins: Why do burgers always get all the attention? Instead, choose colorful chicken kabobs or turkey burgers at your next cookout. You also can use homemade marinade or rub spices on chicken breasts or ribs for added flavor without the calories and added salt.

Another great option is fish. There are good fats in salmon, tuna and trout, such as heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can wrap marinated fish fillets in foil with veggies and lemon, or grill salmon burgers. Shrimp skewers are always a hit, too.

If you want to swap out the meat altogether, grill veggie or portabella mushroom burgers.

But whatever you decide, limit your intake of full-fat burgers and hot dogs, which are loaded with saturated fats. If they are a must, choose light or turkey hot dogs and extra lean patties. The key is portion control. Remember, a serving of meat is three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards, so keep your hamburger patties small.

Lower-calorie sides: Swap out potato chips for grilled corn on the cob or veggie kabobs with mushrooms, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes. You also can grill homemade sweet potato, zucchini or asparagus fries.

Just about all your colorful fruits and veggies can be grilled. The trick is to cut them in smaller pieces that will cook evenly and quickly. Brush with healthier oils, such as olive oil, to prevent sticking.

Fruit salads or a colorful bean salad are healthy, flavorful options, too. You also can make your own pasta salad using whole grain pasta and fresh veggies. Just be sure to make your own dressing, such as simply lemon and olive oil, instead of using a store-bought one.

Steer clear of macaroni or potato salad. Mayonnaise-dressed salads can add lots of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars to your cookout. Opt for vinegar-based coleslaws and salads, but if you’re missing that creaminess, try Greek yogurt instead.

All-natural condiments: Simply squeezing a lemon or lime over fish or chicken can add a lot of flavor that doesn’t need salty spices or sugary condiments. Scooping salsa or guacamole on your protein of choice is a refreshing, healthier option, too.

Looking for spice? Instead of using hot sauces that are high in sodium, use chopped chili peppers, a dash of red pepper flakes or homemade dry rubs.

For extra zest of flavor, try fresh herbs. A tomato-basil chicken sandwich is always a hit, or rosemary potatoes are a classic favorite. Adding thyme and lemon juice, or homemade pesto or chimichurri sauce, to fish, steak or chicken is also an excellent choice.

Just be sure to limit the need for barbeque sauce that is loaded with sugar and sodium, and creamy salad dressings that are high in fat. If you’re going simple, classic mustard and ketchup are better choices for your diet.

Healthier buns: Whole-grain buns will complement your healthy feast with extra fiber, flavor and texture. Large white buns, which contain a lot of empty calories and added sugars, are void of many nutrients and fiber. 

If you’re brave enough to go bun-free, make lettuce wraps instead for a different take.

Guilt-free desserts: Fresh fruits are great for grilling and make a yummy dessert. When grilling fruits, the natural sugars caramelize in the high heat, giving them extra sweetness and flavor. Pineapple rings, mango spears or peach halves will have your guests begging for more.

Or, dollop some whipped cream on fresh berries with mint leaves, or indulge in homemade fruit pops.

But whatever you decide to cap off the meal, be sure to limit pies, cakes and cookies that are loaded with fat, calories and sugar.

With all these yummy, healthier options, what better way to spend your warm summer evenings with family and friends?

Laura Ilg, RD, LD

Laura Ilg, RD, LD


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