Can anyone turn down food at a picnic? From the assortment of salads to the colorful fruit, the burgers and brats to the yummy toppings, it’s a cornucopia of options — some of which can pack unhealthy fats and bust your calorie bank. Ugh.
That said, there are plenty of ways to cut back at cookouts this season. Just in time for our favorite summer holiday, you can throw the yummiest (and healthiest) cookout around with just 10 simple ideas to up your nutrition game.
Lighten up. Take it from the experts. Here are their favorite Fourth of July food tips.
1. Shake up your potato salad
Instead of traditional mayo-laden potato salad, make instead “a light, yet tangy and tart citrus-vinegar potato salad,” says Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center. “It’s super colorful, full of antioxidant-rich veggies, and full of flavor.”
Hunnes says to use a pound of purple fingerling potatoes and a pound of red potatoes, a quarter-cup malt vinegar, one lemon’s juice, a quarter-cup olive oil, and black pepper to taste. Dice one red and yellow pepper, green scallions, and half of a purple onion, before cutting potatoes into half-inch cubes. Cook until fork tender. Pour dressing over potatoes while warm, add the other vegetables and mix. Yum.
2. Grill fruit
Whether it’s a side or a dessert, fruit kebabs taste even better than they look. “Grilling the fruit caramelizes its sugars and concentrates its flavor,” says Erin Morse, chief clinical dietitian at UCLA Health. “It’s a delicious dessert full of antioxidants.”
Cut up favorite fruits like peaches, nectarines, pineapple, bananas, plums, mango, and apricots. Submerge wood skewers in water for 10 to 12 minutes to keep them from burning when grilled while preheating your grill pan or barbecue over medium heat. “Thread fruit onto skewer, alternating types of fruit for a colorful presentation, filling the skewer no more than halfway,” Morse says. “With a pastry brush, paint the fruit with a light coating of oil, and place skewers on the hot grill pan. Turn occasionally until you have grill marks on all sides of the fruit.” Five minutes and you’re done!
3. Up your fiber game
You can also eat your starch even smarter, says Natalie Stephens, a dietitian at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical. Skip the standard potato salad and try a bean-based salad instead. “Try a starchy salad with kick,” she says. “Mix one rinsed can of three or more types of beans — like black, kidney and great northern — with just enough BBQ sauce, cilantro, and diced red onion to get all the ingredients moist. “You’ve still got the starchy side, but really improved fiber intake.” It will keep you fuller, longer.
4. Dress your salad right
High-fat dressings will definitely damage your waistline — so keep all the flavor, just slash the fat. “Make a more traditional salad with colorful bell peppers, tomato, jicama, carrots, and cucumber,” Stephens says. “Dress it lightly with any flavor of vinegar you like, olive oil, or an infused oil.” The trick? Keep the dressing in a 3-to-1 ratio, which will pack flavor without excess. “You can also get healthy fats by adding nuts or seeds into the salad,” Stephens explains.
5. Go bunless
With all the bun alternatives out there, if you’re trying to reduce your cookout calories, you should totally forgo the carbs. “Go bunless on burgers and brats, wrap it all up in a sturdy leaf like kale or chard instead,” Stephens says. “If those are too bitter for your taste, make sliders and wrap in a butter lettuce leaf.” Simple, yummy, and super-low in calories.
6. Try kimchi
“What’s new and hot — literally — is kimchi,” Stephens says. The Asian-style pickled side is actually the perfect topping for your cookout burgers, brats, and dogs. “It will add a kick to any grilled meat, and provide probiotics to promote a healthy gut,” Stephens explains. “Or you can always stick with kraut, which is another probiotic hero.”
7. Top smart
Burgers and hot dogs are typically loaded with high-calorie and fatty toppings, “such as mayo, cheese, fried onions, and bacon,” says Morse. “Instead, try antioxidant-rich, plant-based toppings. These will boost flavor, texture, health benefits, and make your meal more enjoyable.” Which ones, you ask? Morse recommends these combinations or toppings: pesto sauce to spread on buns with heirloom tomato slices and baby spinach; Asian cole-slaw and fresh cilantro; avocado; arugula or watercress; roasted red bell peppers; grilled onion; grilled mushrooms; sundried tomatoes; and grilled bell peppers and onions.
8. Enjoy Asian slaw
Creamy cole slaw is a holiday standby for the Fourth, but low-calorie Asian slaw makes for a much better side. “This will be full of fiber, healthy monounsaturated fats, and sulforaphane antioxidants — without all the saturated fat and calories of traditional cole slaw,” Hunnes says.
To make it yourself, buy pre-shredded colorful slaw mix, add in some shredded carrots, grate a half-inch piece of fresh ginger, and toss it into bowl. Thinly slice half of a red bell pepper and a bunch of scallions before mixing with a half cup of rice-wine vinegar, two tablespoons of toasted sesame oil, a half-cup peanuts, and one tablespoon of honey. “You can also add two tablespoons soy sauce if desired,” Hunnes says.
9. Swap out (bad) fatty dips
Everybody reaches for the sour cream and onion dip for cookouts, but Hunnes says you should make edamame hummus instead. “Or you can buy it,” she says. “The dip has healthy fats in it — instead of saturated fats — and a lot of plant-based protein from the edamame.”
If you want to make some at home, simply defrost and blend two bags of pre-cooked and shelled edamame with three garlic cloves, a half-cup olive oil, and a quarter-cup lemon juice. Add black pepper and a pinch of salt to taste.
10. Try mushroom burgers
Instead of using beef patties, Morse recommends tapping into the health benefits of mushrooms when you nosh on burgers this Fourth. “It also reduces your meat intake while providing wonderful moisture and a meaty texture to the patty,” she explains. “Mushrooms are low in calories, contain selenium, vitamin D, and B-vitamins, and are known to be good for your immune system.” Want a great recipe? Check out Morse’s below.
- 1/3 cup chopped onion.
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- ½ pound of button or crimini mushrooms, quartered
- Ground pepper
- 1 pound ground white meat turkey (or lean beef)
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
- In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high; cook chopped onion and mushrooms, stirring occasionally.
- When onion and mushrooms are soft (about 4 minutes), season with pepper. Transfer to a cutting board and roughly chop mixture.
- In a large bowl, combine cooled mushroom mixture, turkey, and parsley. Form into four 1/2-inch-thick patties; season with pepper. Grill (and flip) until fully cooked.
- Top each patty with your favorite toppings such as grilled onions, tomato, arugula, and red peppers).