The Best and Worst Foods at a Summer Barbecue
Plan a healthy barbecue
A gorgeous day, great food—who doesn't love a picnic? You, that's who, if the food is a rogue's gallery of fatty fare likely to clog your arteries or wreck your diet.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Here's a list of the best and worst foods you should pick or skip if you're attending a barbecue, as well as healthy recipes you can bring or serve at your own fete.
Dig in to these tasty treats for a perfect picnic day. They're a triple win: Simple, tasty, and healthy.
We love burgers. But they can be calorie and saturated fat bombs—so choose carefully. A plain burger on a bun is about 270 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat (20% of the daily value), but make it a large one with toppings and you're up to 512 calories and 52% of your daily value for saturated fat (over 10 grams), or more.
If you're the cook, consider Ground Sirloin Sliders, tasty bites that deliver only 283 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat in each serving (two sliders).
Or choose from an array of other healthy burger recipes, such as a Salmon Burger With Yogurt Sauce, Chicken Burgers With Peanut Sauce, or Turkey and Oat Burgers.
Fun to eat, and good for you too, a healthy wedge of watermelon has just 86 calories. You also get less than one gram of fat, and a decent amount of vitamin C, beta carotene, and lycopene. What's more, watermelon's a great thirst-quencher—it's 92% water.
This summer fruit is a classic and fine on its own. But if you want to get fancy, serve it up in a Watermelon, Feta, and Grilled Shrimp Salad or as a frosty drink, Pressed Watermelon and Basil Water.
Corn on the cob
Grill your corn on the cob, or if you won't have a grill handy, cook it at home until barely done, then wrap the ears in tinfoil, and pack them in a cooler.
Even if you use a little butter, it's still pretty healthy; one buttered ear has 155 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 29 mg of sodium. You can also squeeze some lime juice on the cob and sprinkle it with some cayenne pepper and Parmesan cheese, and you'll have a healthier version of elote, a tasty Mexican street food.
Pulled pork sandwich
This stuff tastes great, but the traditional version of this dish—pulled pork in barbecue sauce—delivers 418 calories and 1658 mg of sodium per 1-cup serving. And that's without a bun. Yikes! (The Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 2300 mg of sodium daily and no more than 1500 mg if you're African American, over 50, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or other health issues.)
If you're a pulled pork fanatic, try this BBQ Pork Sandwich recipe, which delivers 398 calories and 726 mg of sodium per 2/3 cup serving, which includes the bun. Just make sure to put it on a whole wheat hamburger bun.
Grilled fish or seafood
Fish is relatively low in calories, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and cooks in just a few minutes on the grill.
What could be easier or healthier? Choose recipes like these: Grilled Shrimp and Citrus Skewers (134 calories per skewer); Grilled Halibut and Fresh Mango Salsa (295 calories per serving); or Grilled Salmon With Minted Cucumber Sauce (322 calories per serving).
You'll only go wrong if you deep fry, serve with calorie-laden sauces, or choose types prone to high levels of mercury, such as swordfish, shark, mackerel king, or tilefish.
It may be tasty, but those buckets of fried chicken from KFC and its many imitators are chock-full of calories, fat, and sodium.
An Original Recipe chicken breast has 390 calories, 21 grams of fat, and 1,190 mg of sodium. Want that chicken breast extra crispy? That will run you 530 calories, 35 grams of fat, and 1,150 mg of sodium. Spicy crispy? That's 350 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 1,100 mg of sodium.
KFC does offer grilled chicken, which is a much better nutritional choice at 210 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 710 mg of sodium.
You can make your own "finger-lickin' good" chicken in the oven, with a crunchy crust just like the real thing, but not quite as much fat and sodium. Try this Oven-Fried Chicken, which has 450 calories per serving, 13.8 grams of fat, and 803 mg of sodium.
You can also get even healthier and whip up some Buttermilk Pecan Chicken, which has 307 calories per serving, 10 grams of fat, and 138 mg of sodium.
This one can be a diet disaster. Traditional potato salad with full fat mayo and eggs delivers 358 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 170 mg of cholesterol (300 mg per day is the max limit for healthy people; 200 for those with high cholesterol) per 1-cup serving.
But there's a better way. This Two-Potato Salad With Mustard-Chive Dressing has 154 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 3 mg of cholesterol per 3/4 cup serving.
Also try using purple potatoes, which are richer in antioxidants. "That's also a way to make it a little bit healthier, and fun too," says Carolyn Brown, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at FoodTrainers in New York City. "It looks cool."
This one is tricky. What's better at a cookout than a couple of dogs tossed on the grill? Nothing—if you choose the right hot dog.
Try to pick one that has less than 150 calories and fewer than 14 grams of fat (with no more than 6 grams saturated). Sodium shouldn't go over 450 mg and you may want to skip those with a filler, mechanically separated meat, in the ingredient list.
Check out our list of the best and worst hot dogs for more details on the best beef, turkey, and veggie dogs.
Chicken, fruit, and veggie skewers
Anything served on a skewer is fun, easy to eat, and often the perfect picnic food. Try these Yogurt-and-Spice Grilled Chicken Skewers, which deliver just 210 calories per two skewers.
Or consider these Mediterranean Skewers With Bloody Mary Vinaigrette, which offer a tasty combo of olives, tomatoes, artichokes, and mozzarella (only 157 calories per skewer), or these Mozzarella and Nectarine Skewers With Pesto, which deliver 214 calories per two skewers.
It's hard to go wrong with fruit salad. It's often relatively low in calories and rich in antioxidants and fiber. Try Poppy Seed Fruit Salad for 106 calories per 1-cup serving or Lavender-Scented Summer Fruit Salad at 119 calories per serving.
But just keep in mind that fruit is high in natural sugar. If you have diabetes or prediabetes you may need to watch portion sizes. And any fruit salad with high-calorie toppings (think mayo-soaked Waldorf salad) can be problematic; even this Lightened Waldorf Salad delivers 186 calories in a 1-cup serving.
Traditional coleslaw contains cabbage, carrots, and cider vinegar (not mayonnaise!) and is relatively healthy if sometimes dull.
Coleslaw delivers about 47 calories and 2 grams of fat per 1-cup serving. (Add in mayo and it's closer to 80 calories or more per serving). But the bland color and taste sometimes makes ‘slaw the most likely candidate for the "leftovers" category.
To amp up the popularity, try this Spicy Sweet Slaw or Confetti Slaw With Poppy Seed Dressing, which has just 40 calories and 2 grams of fat per serving (2/3 cup). The spicy-sweet flavor will guarantee that guests eat it up!
With pasta salad, the devil is in the details. If you're scooping mayo-soaked macaroni onto your plate, expect to consume about 390 calories and 19 grams of fat per serving. And those calories are pretty darn empty. But pasta salad can be so much more, so that's why we think it's the best.
Start with whole-wheat pasta and add low-cal ingredients, like veggies, and boost the protein with low-fat cheese or lean meat.
Consider Penne With Spinach and Feta (282 calories per 1 1/2-cup serving); Tangy Dijon Pasta (204 calories per 1-cup serving); or Pappardelle With Lemon Gremolata and Asparagus (179 calories per 1-cup serving).
Prepackaged chips and dip
What host or hostess hasn't grabbed a giant bag of chips and a tub of a prepackaged dip in an effort to satisfy hungry guests?
That's fine, but two tablespoons of ready-made sour cream and onion dip has 60 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 250 mg of sodium, while a 1-ounce serving of chips has 154 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 136 mg of sodium.
Instead, choose a healthier chip and dip. We love Stacy's Multigrain Pita Chips with Sabra Tahini Hummus and Wild Harvest Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips with Dos Pistolas Green Chili Salsa.
Sweet iced tea
If you're looking to cut calories, sweet beverages are a good place to start. While iced tea can have fewer calories than soda (140 calories per 8-ounce can, depending on soda type), commercial iced tea brands may not be that far off (120 calories per 8-ounce can, although it varies so check the label). If you use a powdered brand, and stick to the recommended 1 1/3 tablespoons of powder for every 8-ounce glass, it delivers 70 calories (again, check the brand's label). If you use more powder though, you'll get more calories.
Try this recipe for Pomegranate and Lime Iced Tea. It delivers only 59 calories per 8-ounce serving and you’ll be getting some antioxidants and vitamin C along with those calories.
Homemade dip and chips
If you're whipping up several different dishes, you may not have time to make your own dip or chips.
But if you have the time, or you're bringing a dish to share, consider making one that's both healthy and tastes great.
You can try Edamame 'Guacamole' With Chile-Dusted Pita Chips, which has 12 grams of protein and heart-healthy fats; Oven Roasted Sweet Potato Chips With Ranch Dip, which is 194 calories per 11-chip serving; or Crispy Tamari Kale Chips, which has 84 calories per 1 1/2-cup serving.
Cold cuts aren't all that healthy. A slice of prepackaged ham can contain 365 mg of sodium and 46 calories, which adds up if you stack your sandwiches high.
A better option is white meat, like turkey, which contains about 139 mg of sodium and 15 calories per slice. You can also make a healthier recipe; we like this Rosemary Chicken Salad.
Choose 100% whole-grain breads and select healthier condiments like mustard, instead of mayo (lots of fat) or ketchup (lots of sugar).
Deviled eggs are cute, but their story is mixed in terms of nutrition. Whether you love them or hate them (most people seem to feel one way or the other), the traditional dish can deliver about 60 calories and 120 mg cholesterol per 1/2 egg serving.
Make them healthier by using the barest bit of mayo—or none at all. You can substitute with cottage cheese, greek yogurt, or even avocado!
Try this recipe: New American Deviled Eggs, which has 34 calories and 53 mg of cholesterol per 1/2 egg serving, and uses low-fat mayo, fat-free yogurt, and even some baked potato in the mix.
We're big fans of apple pie. It's as cool as the American flag, your granny, and jumping in lakes.
What we're not fans of are pies that deliver mega-calories or unhealthy fats. A slice of some store-bought pies can deliver 330 calories and 18 grams of fat, and may contain trans fat. If that's what's available, skip it or practice portion control and have just a sliver.
If you're up for some baking, try these recipes: Classic Apple Pie, which delivers 298 calories and 8 grams of fat per slice or this scrumptious Caramel Apple Pie, at just 276 calories and 9 grams of fat per slice.
A brownie bought from a grocery store or fast-food outlet can deliver 227 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 144 mg of sodium (or more). But there are other ways.
Believe it or not, it's possible to make a healthier brownie that tastes great.
These Triple Chocolate Surprise Brownies use—surprise!—black beans, spinach, and applesauce. Each brownie has 153 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 92 mg of sodium.
Like iced tea, sweet lemonade can over-deliver calories. An 8-ounce serving made with mix has about 70 calories, while bottled, sugar-sweetened lemonade can have 140 calories per 12-ounce serving (depending on the brand).
Consider trying these recipes: Bethenny Frankel's Green Tea Lemonade (14 calories per 1-cup serving); or Pomegranate Lemonade, which has 75 calories per 8-ounce glass.
This isn't the healthiest pick, but they're so darn tasty and fun, it's hard to say no. Portion control should be your mantra with these treats.
If you're eating the classic version—one toasted marshmallow and 3 squares of Hershey's chocolate bar mushed between two graham crackers, you'll be consuming about 142 calories.
Feel free to tinker with tradition, though. These Grilled Banana S'mores use dark chocolate and swap the marshmallow for a grilled banana. Genius!
Cherry or grape tomatoes
They're the perfect size for popping in your mouth, they're delicious, and they're great for you. A cup of cherry tomatoes has just 27 calories and lots of nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, and antioxidants.
Brown suggests getting cherry tomatoes—and any other fruits and veggies that you can—at a farmer's market during picnic season. "Talk to the farmers about what's good," she says.
Serve them on their own, toss them in a Cherry Tomato Mozzarella Salad, or make them into Cherry Tomato Salsa and use as a dip.
Fruit and cheese platter
Keep it simple by bringing along some fruit and cheese. Keep in mind that hard cheeses tend to stand up better under picnic conditions. (Long hours of hot sun plus Brie equals soggy mess.)
A few tasty combinations: cheddar or Gruyere and apples (sprinkle with lemon or lime juice to avoid browning); watermelon and feta; ripe figs and blue cheese; tomatoes and mozzarella; or ricotta and grapes.
Pack fruit and cheese separately to keep the flavors fresh.
Buffalo chicken dip
This dip is addicting! The taste of Buffalo chicken wings served up as a dip (it contains chicken, hot sauce, blue cheese, and cream cheese), just one serving—5 to 6 tablespoons—delivers 284 calories and 23 grams of fat, including 9 grams of saturated fat. And it's hard to eat just one serving!
To make it healthier, use reduced-fat cream cheese; replace cheddar with the reduced-fat cheese of your choice; and substitute no-fat Ranch dressing for the full-fat kind. That will cut it down to 110 calories and 6 grams of fat per 1/4 cup serving. Then it's up to you to practice portion control.
Hint: Use celery or carrots instead of tortilla chips when you dip.