How to eat healthy at summer barbecues and cookouts

by Kaiser Permanente |
Barbeque skewer with grilled vegetables

For many, summer equals barbecue season. While these months are all about relaxing and sharing meals with friends and family, it’s not always easy to make healthy eating choices during those get-togethers. Unless you’re mindful of your food choices, a season’s worth of parties, picnics, and potlucks could add up fast.

But even if you already make healthy choices at home, finding the most nutritious option at a party can be tricky. Whether you’re a host or a guest, below are some tips and recipes to help you have a fun, healthy, and delicious summer.

Think twice about sauces, dressings, and dips

Any dish can become less healthy when you slather it with the wrong toppings. So, this is a good place to start as you check out your options.

For healthier plates, skip mayonnaise and ranch dressing. Instead, choose dressings made with vinegar and heart-healthy fats like olive oil. And for traditionally mayo-heavy sides like coleslaw, try substituting Dijon mustard and rice vinegar. To avoid added sugar, skip or limit things like honey BBQ sauce and ketchup.

Try these recipes:

Elevate veggies to entrée status

Vegetables are often considered side dishes, but they can be just as filling and satisfying as meat dishes. Thanks to the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, there are plenty of plant-based recipes available online that even meat lovers will enjoy. Look for options that prepare veggies like meat dishes by grilling or baking.

Try these recipes:

For soy and meatless options, try:

Throw some fruit on the grill

Most people know that fruit makes for a healthier dessert than cakes, pies, and other buttery baked goods. While fresh fruits are delicious on their own, you can go beyond a simple fruit cup. Step it up by grilling fruits like peaches and pineapples to add flavor and texture.

Try these recipes:

Choose lean meats and smaller portions

Red meats, like beef, pork, and lamb, are higher in saturated fat than skinless chicken or fish. If you choose a red meat dish, aim for a smaller portion. A single serving of meat is 3 ounces, or the size of a deck of cards, according to the American Heart Association.1 And don’t forget to watch the sauces.

For leaner options, try:

Limit alcohol and sugary drinks

It’s important to be mindful of your beverage choices, too. While sodas are notorious sources of sugar, it also lurks in beverages that you might think are healthy, such as fruit juices and energy drinks.

Sugar can also be found in alcoholic cocktails and mixed drinks like margaritas and piña coladas, and alcohol-free mocktails. Limit sugary and alcoholic beverages and alternate with water. You can add sliced lemon or crushed raspberries or strawberries for a refreshing boost of sweetness.

Low sugar-mocktail recipes to try:

Remember, it’s all about balance

It’s OK to indulge a little. Healthy eating isn’t about depriving yourself. It’s about finding a balance of different kinds of foods and drinks.

If you’re not hosting and worried about the food options at your next barbecue, bring a healthy dish of your own to share. Chances are, you won’t be the only one who appreciates nutritious options.

"Picking Healthy Proteins," American Heart Association, accessed May 2022.