With summer in full swing and the Fourth of July right around the corner, you are bound to be hitting up your fair share of barbecues and picnics. Juicy, mammoth cheeseburgers and mounds of creamy macaroni salad will beckon you. But before you succumb to the salty allure of those potato chips and expand your bikini-ready waistline, consider opting instead for the following healthy alternatives to classic BBQ fare. Try these nutritious (yet still satisfying) swaps, and you can grub without sabotaging your health.
The Main Course
Skip This: Hamburger or cheeseburger
No barbecue would be complete without a good ol’ all-American hamburger or cheeseburger. Unfortunately, a beefy burger is not the healthiest option out there. Consisting of a saturated fat-laden patty enveloped in a white bun that packs negligible nutritional benefits, hamburgers will usually set you back at least 250-500 calories. Make it a cheeseburger and you’ll add on another 50-100 calories and more saturated fat. But, fear not, there are more nutritious ways to satisfy your burger craving.
Pick This: Turkey burger on whole grain bun
A turkey burger has fewer calories, less fat, and a bit more protein than a hamburger—even an extra lean cut. Certified health coach Laurie Brownstein explains that since turkey has less saturated fat than meat, it is considered a better quality protein.
If you’re a vegetarian (or even if you’re not) go for a veggie burger, which contains little to no saturated fat. Look for ones made with soy or nuts to get protein and other nutrients.
The classic white bun that hamburgers and cheeseburgers are served on is a refined starch food. According to goodcarbs.org, refined starches are referred to as “empty-calorie” foods because they lack nutrition, fiber, and vitamins. Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist Roberta Laredo explains that “Starches and sweets don’t fill us like higher fiber and higher protein foods do so we feel hungry quicker, which can then lead to eating too much too soon.”
By going whole grain, you’ll boost the health benefits of your burger. Whereas refined starches are zeroes, whole grains are heroes—they are “an excellent source of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants” and “can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in addition to reducing blood pressure and obesity.” A pretty substantial health upgrade for a nominal change in flavor!
No turkey burgers or whole grain buns in sight? Go for a naked hamburger. If you go bunless and hold the cheese, you’ll eliminate the bulk of the calories but still be filled up from the protein. Can’t bear to pass up the cheese? There are still ways for you to moderate the calorie and saturated fat content. Laredo advises, “Choose lower fat cheese when possible. There are many reduced fat cheeses on the market now that have great taste.” She suggests opting for a cheese that packs a lot of flavor per serving, like sharp cheddar and real Parmesean Reggiano, so that “you can use less, but still get great taste.”
Or This: Grilled chicken breast
If available, chicken breast is an amazing alternative to a burger and you’ll still get that grilled, smoky, flavor. According to Rob Poulous on his website Fast Fit Tips, “No lean protein has a more respected reputation than the chicken breast. Specifically boneless, skinless chicken breasts have consistently been at the top of the list of lean proteins for fat loss.” This fowl ain’t foul.
Skip This: Hot dog
The hot dog is another barbecue staple and certainly a childhood favorite for many, but nutritionally speaking the frank is not your friend—at least not your best friend. While the links themselves are not calorie dense, they contain a significant amount of fat, saturated fat, and salt. There are also concerns about the nitrites that many brands contain and, like hamburgers, hot dogs are typically blanketed in a white bun so consider them more of an occasional treat. Chowing down on a bunless hot dog will not necessarily break your calorie bank, but you can still do better. So what should you choose instead?
Pick This: Tofu dog
Don’t run away in fear yet. Tofu dogs may not have exactly the same consistency as regular hot dogs, but if you wrap ‘em in a whole grain bun and throw on a touch of ketchup and mustard, you may not even notice the difference. Tofu dogs, such as Tofu Pups have less than half the calories of a regular dog and about 80% less fat. And if that’s not enough, they also are rich in soy protein. These pups are definitely worth a try.
Or This: Grilled fish
Flavor-wise, grilled fish is admittedly nothing like a hot dog. And as a child deprived of pets my whole life, I know that a fish is sadly not a satisfactory replacement for a dog. Fish does, however, trump hot dogs in the nutritional arena due to all of the vitamins, minerals, and healthy protein and fat it provides. Fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which help your brain and body function properly and may “decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure, reduce blood clotting and decrease stroke and heart failure risk.” So if it is on the menu, you should consider fishing for this healthy dish.
The Side Dish
Skip This: Potato & pasta salads
Don’t let the word “salad” deceive you—consisting of starches drenched in mayo, potato and pasta salads are anything but healthy. According to Eating Well, the average cup of potato salad has 360 calories and about 20 grams of fat. There are, of course, ways to make these BBQ staples less fattening. If you are making the dish yourself, try using low-fat mayo or Greek yogurt or other healthy substitutes here. Otherwise, you would be better off skipping these salads.
Pick This: Coleslaw
Yes, usually coleslaw is also swimming in mayo, but if you are choosing between a potato or pasta salad and coleslaw, the slaw is the better bet. Eating Well deems coleslaw a way to “satisfy a craving for something creamy for far fewer calories (83, with 3 grams of fat per cup)” and it is also “a rich source of isothiocyanates, compounds that amp up the body’s natural detoxifying enzymes.”
Or This: Mixed green salad
If you can bear to skip the mayo all together, you can go green with a real salad sans dressing, which makes a deliciously healthy companion to any main course. If you’re not a lettuce lover, that doesn’t mean you have to nix vegetables altogether; try grilling your favorite vegetable —whether it be corn or peppers or zucchini—to give them a nice flavor and complement your other BBQ treats wholesomely. Brownstein recommends filling up on green salads and veggies first, rather than just treating the greens as a side, to satisfy your appetite for fewer calories.
Skip This: French fries
You don’t need us to tell you that the French fry, the most popular sidekick of hot dogs and hamburgers everywhere, is not a superfood. From the oil it’s smothered and fried in to the salt dumped on its every crevice, the fry is an obvious belly bloater. Nonetheless, there’s no ignoring that the fry makes for a delicious side, so what should you turn to if you can’t kick the craving?
Pick This: Baked potato fries
Bad reputation of the French fry aside, potatoes themselves are not unhealthy. One medium potato has about 150 calories, about 5 grams of fiber, and provides a lot of vitamins and minerals in its skin. When prepared the right way, a potato can actually be a nutritious side dish. Instead of French fries, try baked potato wedges. By including the skin and using less oil by baking instead of frying, you’ll get the taste of a fry without the fat.
Or This: Baked sweet potato
For added nutritional benefit, you can follow the same baked potato wedge recipe using sweet potatoes or just go for a plain baked sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber but are lower on the glycemic index than regular potatoes. As explained in an article in the Los Angeles Times, foods low on the glycemic index “do not cause a quick spike in blood sugar and thus do not overwork the pancreas… as a result, people don’t experience the same roller coaster of sugar highs and lows, which can lead to hunger and the consumption of extra calories. In other words, foods with lower glycemic indexes, like sweet potatoes and brown rice, make you feel full longer.” Your appetite—and even your sweet tooth—will be satisfied.
Skip This: Ice cream
A summer without ice cream would hardly be a summer at all. The key is moderation. Whether it comes as a bar or scooped into a cone, some variation of ice cream will likely make an appearance at any barbecue or picnic, but choosing a different frozen treat to beat the heat every once in awhile could save you a boatload of calories. Some brands of ice cream, such as Skinny Cow and Weight Watchers, offer ice cream bars that are only 100-150 calories. We love the Mmmmocha Truffle Ice Cream Bars from Skinny Cow at only 100 calories each. Others, however, can cost you up to 200-550 calories.
Pick This: Popsicle
At only 45 calories, a classic Popsicle has less than half the calories of even the skinniest of ice cream bars and most other frozen fruit pops are under 100 calories. Low in calories but high in fruity flavor? We’ll take it.
Or This: Homemade fruit pop
You can get more bang for your nutritional buck and cater to your own taste buds by getting creative in the kitchen with homemade fruit pops! By making the fruit pop yourself with natural ingredients, you eliminate the added sugars and preservatives hidden in store-bought brands. Check out these fun, healthy recipes from Rodale.
Skip This: Pie
Pie may be as American as the flag, but it contains oodles of empty calories, sugar, and even sometimes some of those dreaded trans-fats. One occasional slice won’t harm you, but there is also definitely no harm in trying out some healthier alternatives. You can have your dessert and eat it too.
Pick This: Grilled or baked fruit & fro-yo or light ice cream
Bake an apple and top it with a scoop of low-fat ice cream like Edy’s Slow Churned Caramel Delight. Voilà, you’ve got yourself a mock apple pie for less than 200 calories. You can try baking or grilling your favorite fruit and topping it with any flavor of frozen yogurt or light ice cream to serve as a sinless substitute for pie.
Or This: Watermelon
The go-to fruit for BBQs and picnics, watermelon is a refreshing summer delicacy and a healthy way to satisfy your sweet tooth at the end of a meal. One wedge of watermelon has about 86 calories, virtually no fat or sodium, and tons of essential vitamins and minerals. The water, carbs, and fiber it contains will fill you up, though, so before you reach for a baked good on the dessert table, first try noshing on a few juicy pieces of watermelon. If your sweet tooth still isn’t satisfied, just go for that sliver of pie. YOLO.
Alright, so now that you know the better choices to make, how are you going to actually make them when those crispy French fries are right in front of you? Laredo encourages you to “have a healthy, satisfying snack before you so you will feel more in control when faced with making decisions regarding what to eat.” Furthermore, she says, “you should survey what’s offered and then be selective regarding what you put on your plate. If your favorite food is a hamburger, choose that but try to fill up the rest of your plate with some lighter options.” Brownstein supports this advice. “Don’t go to a barbecue hungry,” Brownstein says. “People tend to skip breakfast or a meal before because they want to save calories, but then they show up famished and end up eating more.” She adds that breakfast is “key for everybody” regardless of whether you’re going to a barbecue later. “You’ll make healthier food choices later,” she explains. In addition to not showing up on an empty stomach, Brownstein and Laredo both propose helping out the host—and yourself—by bringing a healthy dish to be served at the BBQ.
At the end of the day, though, it’s summer and you should enjoy yourself—one hamburger won’t kill you. “Don’t sweat it if you over indulged at one event. Just do your best to get back on a healthy track the next day,” Laredo says. Sounds good to us!