Sneaky Hacks for a Healthier Summer Barbecue

With cocktails flowing, cheeseburgers sizzling, mayo-dressed sides in ample supply and a seemingly endless array of ice cream treats, summer barbecue menus can be as filling as a Thanksgiving feast. But with these healthy summer potluck tips in your back pocket, you can celebrate the season and feel energized, balanced and excited to do it all again next weekend.

Similar to our wellness survival guides for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we promise we aren’t going to ask you to count calories or abstain from all the “fun” foods of the season. 

Just like you can do too much in terms of your skin care routine and exercise agenda, you can also overdo it by focusing too much on healthful eating. The key to nearly everything in life is finding that happy balance near the center of the seesaw. At summer potlucks and barbecues, this means that joyful middle ground between indulgence and nutrition.

“Summer is so fleeting and is meant to be savored,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a Dobbs Ferry, New York–based nutritionist and author of the upcoming Everyday Snack Tray. “Of course, I also understand that folks are looking to stay in balance all week long and don’t want to feel like they’ve overdone it at any one event. I’d recommend building a balanced plate.”

Healthy summer grilling

Enjoying social gatherings is possible without feeling like you have to surrender your health goals (or your digestive comfort, hangover-free head and more), adds Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, a San Diego-based registered dietitian and the author of the Air Fryer Cookbook for Dummies and Instant Pot Cookbook for Dummies. These summer grilling ideas, healthy summer recipes, savvy sipping and snacking strategies and more showcase how to hit the sweet spot between healthy fueling and fun.

Mindful Eating Strategies for Meals

If you arrive at the gathering famished, it can feel nearly impossible to avoid the allure of a whole rack of ribs or a family-sized bag of chips. Before you dig in to your main meal, consider taking the edge off with a snack, salad or side dish. If you’re in charge of bringing along the appetizers or snacks to add to the spread, consider one of these crowd-pleasing swaps that sneak in some nutrition—plus satisfying fiber and/or protein

  • Popcorn
  • Veggies with hummus, guacamole or tzatziki
  • Deviled eggs
  • Shrimp cocktail
  • Mixed nuts

When you’re ready to turn your attention to the main event, Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, a Miami-based board-certified sports dietitian readily admits that she even finds it daunting to narrow it down the options—or decide where to start. This is especially true if every item that’s part of the long line-up of sweet and savory summer barbecue spread looks tempting. How could you really choose between potato salad or pie? A burger or brownie?

Take a deep breath, give yourself some breathing room to enjoy the time with your fellow potluckers (rather than stressing over which are the lowest-calorie of the bunch) and peruse your options before filling your plate or glass.

“Survey the food and beverages before you dive in,” Shaw suggests. “This will help you evaluate what is really calling your name versus a reaction to entering the buffet line.”

 And most of all, remember: “Eating one meal that isn’t fully balanced won’t make or break your health! In general, try to follow the MyPlate method of filling up your plate. This can help you build a balanced meal,” Ehsani recommends. 

Here’s how:

  • Fill half your plate with color, aka fruits and veggies. “These can be raw, cooked, sautéed, grilled or in any other form,” Ehsani says. Green salads, salsa, fruit salads, veggie skewers, hummus and crudités are all frequent menu MVPs.
  • Next, fill a quarter of your plate with protein. This could be beans, tofu, chicken, a burger, seafood, beans, lentils, nuts or seeds.
  • Finally, fill a quarter of your plate with grains or starchy veggies such as potato salad, sweet potato wedges, rice, pasta salad, cornbread or quinoa.

If you’re fretting about what might be available, “consider bringing one or two items you know the crowd will enjoy, but will also help you sneak in an extra veggie or two,” Shaw says. 

As you’re sitting down to enjoy your plate full of healthy summer recipes (and perhaps some not-so-healthy summer recipes—that’s okay, too!), keep in mind that there are no “good” or “bad” foods—and that means what you eat does not make you a “good” or “bad” person or diner. Also remember that each of these items are also available to you tomorrow (and the next day, and the next), which can make it easier to stick to a more mindful portion size.

Healthy Recipe Swaps for Grilled Favorites

As you narrow down our options for your main dish, “consider having seafood steal the show,” Shaw suggests. “Grilled fish not only helps meet your omega-3 fatty acid recommendations, but it’s also is a fun way to bring Taco Tuesday to your weekend fiesta with friends.” 

Firm options such as shrimp, salmon, cod, halibut, swordfish and mahi mahi all hold up well on the grill. (Be sure to check the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch ratings to ensure your selection is sustainable and safe to eat at the moment.)

Otherwise, you can consider trading your typical ground beef burgers for leaner ground chicken or healthy ground turkey recipes, or for a plant-based option, grilled portobello mushroom caps. If hot dogs are more your style, look for all-beef versions or play around with one of the food trends of a couple years ago: carrot dogs. Tuck any of those inside a whole wheat bun instead of a white one for a bit more fiber.

healthy summer grilling squash

If you’re fond of pork, ponder grilling lean pork tenderloin rather than ribs this round (which are higher in saturated fat, which may increase risk for heart disease if consumed in excess and over time).

To infuse more flavor into any protein, search for a fruit juice-based marinade, Shaw recommends. 

“Orange juice adds a wonderful sweet citrus touch to chicken, while pureed prunes work great with pork. These hacks provide the sweetness you’re looking for without any added sugar,” she says.

And while the grill is already stoked and hot, why not toss on some produce? Bell peppers, asparagus corn, summer squash, red onion and tomatoes all char up nicely over an open flame (or on a gas grill) and can easily be transformed into enticing rainbow skewers. These are all excellent options for any vegans, vegetarians or as an option for someone who wants an alternative to animal protein that day.

“You can add more nutrition to just about any dish. Get creative and don’t be afraid to modify a recipe you are following,” Ehsani says, such as by alternating bell pepper slices between pieces of diced chicken on your kabobs, or topping your burger with grilled cherry tomatoes. “You can almost always incorporate at least one or two more servings of veggies into any entrée or side dish.”

Light and Refreshing Summer Salads and Sides

Speaking of infusing more produce into your potluck, Ehsani advises her clients to enter gatherings like summer barbecues with this question in mind, “Where can I add in more color?”

“Let’s say you’re bringing a black bean salad, can you stir in halved cherry tomatoes, diced bell peppers, cubes of cucumbers or diced celery? With a kale salad, can you add berries on top? Or maybe you plan on bringing some fruit. Instead of sticking to one, create a fruit salad and a big melody of fruits,” Ehsani says.

Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans are currently meeting their recommended daily intake levels for fruits and vegetables, Shaw points out (and the CDC confirms), so consider the side and salad menu the perfect opportunity to inch ever closer to your 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ to 3 ½ cups of veggies per day. 

Largeman-Roth’s signature dish is a twist on a traditional Israeli shepherd’s salad, which typically includes cucumber, tomato, onion and feta. Instead of the tomatoes, she swaps in cubes of watermelon. 

“The cucumber already provides loads of hydration, but adding the watermelon offers lycopene and also lends a little bit of sweetness, which many people (including kids) enjoy,” Largeman-Roth says.

healthy summer grilling, summer cucumber salad

You can also easily and affordably add plant-based protein and fiber to many salads and side dishes by stirring in a can of drained and rinsed beans.

To lure in even the pickiest of eaters, assemble a DIY salad station, Shaw recommends. Bring a big bowl of leafy greens, then place the topping options (such as shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, chopped onion, olives, etc.) in separate muffin tin cups for easy transport. Add dressing options on the side along with baked cheese crisps instead of croutons (for a protein boost) and everyone can design their own produce masterpiece.

Clever Tricks for Alcohol and Hydration

Just like mindful eating can assist you in enjoying all foods in moderation, mindful drinking is a savvy strategy especially at social events. If you do choose to sip on some spirits at the summer barbecue, try to stick to these few rules of thumb to imbibe without regretting your choices tomorrow:

  • Seek out lower-alcohol (lower-ABV) options when available. This will naturally lower your alcohol intake, of course, and your calorie and sugar consumption. Largeman-Roth stirs up her Aperol Spritzes with sparkling water instead of sparkling wine, and there are many lower-ABV beers, wines and canned cocktails on the market that you could bring along to share.
  • Alternate one alcoholic drink and one cup or bottle of water (one standard “drink” is equivalent to 5 ounces of 12 percent ABV wine, 12 ounces of 5 percent ABV beer or 1 ½ ounces of 40 percent ABV spirits—or a cocktail made with that amount).
  • Use club soda or sparkling water instead of tonic; the latter contains sugar.
  • Split one serving of a cocktail with a friend, and top it off with sparkling water

As you can tell, water is your BFF at any barbecue. To help in your quest to stay hydrated, start the gathering with a glass of H2O before you snag any spirited drink, and if possible, BYOB (bring your own bottle—to hold water). 

“You never know if water or sparkling water will be offered alongside the booze and soda,” Largeman-Roth says. “In the summer, I recommend aiming for 12 ½ cups, or 100 ounces, per day. That may seem outrageous, but if you’re active or outside in the heat, that’s about what you need.” 

This goal sounds less daunting if you break it down; think about refilling your 32-ounce bottle three times per day. Yes, water-rich foods count toward your total. And luckily, many make frequent appearances among the summer grilling ideas mentioned above. Cucumbers, iceberg and romaine lettuce, celery, radishes, summer squash, asparagus, bell pepper, cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach, strawberries and watermelon are all 92 percent or more water.

Dessert Swaps

If you’re feeling called to a specific slice of pie, cake, brownie, bar, cookie or ice cream treat, go for it. Following your craving will not only make the overall experience more enjoyable, but will also allow you to steer clear of the sweet-a-palooza that can occur as you try to snack your way to fill the void of not having fed your body what it actually wanted originally. 

If you’re unsure of what you crave but know you’re seeking something sweet, here are a few dietitian-recommended options that come with a mini nutrition boost:

  • Grilled fruit with whipped cream and a spoonful of chopped nuts
  • Homemade frozen yogurt popsicles
  • Grilled angel food cake and berry kabobs
  • A couple squares of dark chocolate 
  • A pint-sized frozen dessert (Largeman-Roth loves Bubbies Mochi and Trader Joe’s Mini Hold the Cone)
  • S’mores with dark chocolate, grilled fruit and a toasted marshmallow

The Bottom Line

Summer barbecues, like many things in life, are all about balance and choices. Enter the event with nothing off limits, and try to sneak in a fiber- or protein-forward snack before you’re hangry. Then fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, one-quarter with protein and one-quarter with carbohydrates. Aim to stay hydrated, and if you opt to drink, seek out lower-alcohol options and alternate each boozy beverage with a glass or bottle of water. Come dessert o’clock, lean into fruit—or whatever item you’re craving most.

“Have the cookie, cake or ice cream—whatever’s calling you—instead of all three, perhaps. This may also help prevent eating or drinking until you’re uncomfortably full,” Shaw says

Chances are high that this won’t be your last summer barbecue; perhaps not even the last one this season. So Shaw recommends trying to avoid the “I’ll do better tomorrow mindset,” and eat with your hunger cues guiding you today. The result? A healthier and happier tomorrow.

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