There’s nothing more fun than a classic summer barbecue. Just the thought of the food, fun and summer vibes can instantly make you happy and hungry. While all these things are good reasons to get together, the food table might leave you stumped as you look for healthy options.
Fortunately, though, most barbecue spreads offer hidden healthy gems if you know what to look for. Here are the best choices (and the rationale why) — plus some recipe inspiration to help you decide what dish or drink to bring.
Seafood — particularly shrimp — is an excellent option for your next barbecue, especially if it’s bring-your-own-protein. Not only is it simple to marinate and super fast to grill (just say yes to not standing at the grill for an hour), it’s also low in calories and provides a good amount of protein.
In addition, shrimp contains important minerals like selenium and 36% of the recommended daily intake for choline, an essential nutrient closely related to the B vitamins. The Food and Drug Administration recommends aiming for 550 mg of choline per day. Choline plays a critical role in metabolism, yet 90% of Americans aren’t getting enough of it. With shrimp on the menu, you can actually support your metabolism while enjoying the barbecue! That’s a win-win in our book.
CORN ON THE COB
If you see corn on the cob at a summer party, grab it and enjoy! Corn is a natural source of fiber that helps you feel full on less and can potentially lower the impact of high glycemic foods on your blood sugar. A large ear of corn is about 150 calories (similar to one serving of chips) and naturally sweet and crunchy.
Try adding flavor with spices like pepper, garlic powder or fresh herbs instead of just basting it in butter. To grill, set the shucked ear down on a medium hot grill for about 15 minutes (turning once or twice), until corn is tender.
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There’s no need to feel guilty for grabbing a tasty kabob fresh off the grill. Kabobs create an illusion of a hearty portion but are quite reasonable when it comes to nutrition. They are a great way to enjoy your favorite meat — since there’s likely only a few cubes per skewer — or present fruits and vegetables in a more attractive way. Plus, they take up serious real estate on your paper plate, forcing you to take more moderate portions of the other party foods.
Watermelon is more than a summertime treat; it’s packed with nutrition as well. Sure, it has a high water content (which contributes to staying well hydrated), but it also has some amazing nutritional power. Watermelon is a good source of the antioxidant lycopene, known for its anti-inflammatory effects, and is also high in vitamin C. Perhaps one of its most helpful properties as a party food is it’s super low in calories at just 46 per cup.
Fortunately, it packs big flavor that satisfies any sweet tooth. Watermelon eaten by the slice is absolutely wonderful, but if you want to jazz it up a bit, try this easy Watermelon Cucumber Salad from Love and Zest.
Coleslaw often gets a bad rap due to the mayonnaise typically included in the recipe, but you shouldn’t overlook the fact it’s basically all vegetables. Traditional coleslaw is made with shredded cabbage and carrots, which certainly counts toward the recommended servings of vegetables every day. Coleslaw made with a vinegar base (instead of mayo or sour cream) will be lighter in calories and can still deliver big flavor.
If you really want to reinvent your coleslaw in flavor and health benefits, make it with shredded Brussels sprouts instead of cabbage. Brussels sprouts contain compounds that help support your body’s natural detoxification systems. They are also a plant-based source of choline, which is important for your brain’s ability to process and store memories. Choline is also critical for brain health both early in life, as the brain is forming, and later in life to prevent cognitive decline.
While making Brussels sprout coleslaw may seem daunting, this Simple Brussels Sprout Slaw, from Dawn Jackson Blatner, couldn’t be easier or more delicious.
Beans appear in many forms at barbecues, and many of them can be healthy. They provide plant-based protein and are a great source of fiber, which contributes to feeling more satisfied on less food and prevents overeating.
If you’re reaching for baked beans, these can come loaded with added saturated fat and sugar, so be mindful. Be on the lookout for dishes that include beans like black bean salad, lima beans, black-eyed peas or hummus and fill up on them.
This Vegetarian Bean Dip, from Kroll’s Korner, covers all your bases with lots of beans, huge flavor and some extra veggies.
If it were up to us, guacamole would be a required dip at every single party. Obviously it’s delicious, but it’s also packed with amazing nutrition. First, avocados are a healthy source of fat, contain antioxidants and include phytosterols, which are compounds with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Second, guacamole’s add-ins (Think: cilantro, garlic, onion and lime) all offer additional benefits potentially lowering blood glucose levels and controlling cholesterol.
All these factors certainly justify it as a chip or veggie dip, but you can also think about using it as a condiment on burgers, too. Give guests free rein of their guac use with a DIY Healthy Guacamole Bar from Kara Lydon.
SPARKLING WATERS OR SPIKED SELTZERS
Deciding what and how to reasonably drink at parties can be a challenge if you’re hanging with a crowd that likes their alcohol. Fortunately, drinks continue to evolve and flavored sparkling waters now offer conscious eaters a satisfying option over plain water. Many sparkling waters are naturally flavored and surprisingly delicious.
You can add a shot of liquor to the bubbly water and usually stay under 100 calories. There are even spiked seltzer waters now that come in around 100 calories and help you avoid the regret of drinking a flavorless light beer.
There are a few ways to approach dessert at a barbecue. First, make sure you actually enjoy it (versus just eating it because it’s there). If it’s not your favorite, see if another slice of watermelon or serving of fruit salad satisfies your sweet tooth and move on. Second, if you do really like what’s being served, maybe take a little less dinner fare to balance out your treat.
Lastly, look for slightly lighter options that scream summer fun but won’t blow your entire calorie allowance — like a fruit crisp, an idea that can be adapted to almost any fruit. They are lighter because there’s no high-fat crust and just a sprinkling of the “good stuff” on top. There’s usually sugar in the recipe, but if you make it from scratch, you can tailor the amount used based on the sweetness of the fruit. This Easy Peach Crisp is the perfect go-to recipe for such a situation.
Keep these other general strategies in mind to set yourself up for delicious, nutritious success at your next barbecue:
- Don’t come to the party completely starving. Eat a piece a fruit or cup of veggies before heading out. It won’t totally fill you up, but will take the edge off your hunger.
- Assess the food situation before eating. Make mental notes of what you really like to eat and what’s not your thing. Instead of just grazing on food for hours, set a personal appetizer time and dinner time where you gather your food, then sit and enjoy it.
- Think outside the box when assembling your plate. Just because burgers are being served does not mean you have to eat it the traditional way. Go bunless, spread guacamole on top and set it on a bed of black-eyed peas. If vegetables are hard to find on the buffet, remember that lettuce and tomato are almost always served with burgers. Make a lettuce wrap or turn it into a makeshift salad.
- Don’t neglect drinking water. It’s easy to get dehydrated in the summer heat, which can send tricky hunger messages to your brain. By staying well hydrated, you have a better chance of noticing true hunger and fullness signals.
Written by Jenna Braddock, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in sports nutrition. She is a mom to two little boys and wife to a football coach. She shares real-life strategies for better health and doable, delicious recipes on her site Make Healthy Easy. Disclosure: Author is a spokesperson for Balchem/VitaCholine. All opinions are original work.