A Guide to Healthy Eating: Summer Barbecue Edition

July 4th is on its way – which means cookouts and barbecues galore.  

Everyone has different nutrition goals so these recommendations are merely healthier suggestions rather than a one-size fits all nutrition guide.  Okay, let’s get into it:

Hamburgers vs. Hot Dogs

Hamburgers are typically more calorically-dense than hot dogs due to sheer mass – I mean how often have you really seen a footlong hotdog at a summer barbecue? So what we are asking is – how much other stuff are you planning on eating at this event? Eating right is like a puzzle; you just have to fit the right things together.  If you opt for the more calorically-dense burger as your entree, then you’d obviously want to eat fewer side options. But keep in mind, the burger isn’t a bad option. They’re typically packed with more protein, less sodium, less saturated fat, and fewer unhealthy preservatives than hot dogs. Plus, for a less calorically-dense option, opt for a lettuce bun.  We probably wouldn’t recommend that with the hotdog: best to keep the dog classic in our humble opinion.


Grilled rather than fried.  Fried chicken packs more calories due to its higher fat content, which probably means fewer cookout sides for you.  Grilled chicken is leaner and its lower fat content means you can have more of it – especially good for packing in your protein for the day.


Fruit salad is a summer staple; however, the most delicious ones are typically made with simple syrup, a sugar-water concoction that makes it taste great but can put a real dent into your carb allotment for the day.  If you go for that option, keep in mind the sugar carbs you’re taking in and the increase in calories. If you can find a fruit platter at the barbecue instead, you’ll ideally be taking in fewer carbs – just be sure to watch your portion sizes!

Potato Salad and French Fries

Potato salad is delicious, don’t get us wrong, but it’s also packed with mayo and therefore unhealthy fats.  Same with fries, we love them, but they’re full of unhealthy fats from frying oil. Instead opt for a baked potato with melted cheese (healthy fats – but keep in mind, not all cheeses are created equal).

Corn on the Cob

Corn on the cob is a great way to get in your carbs, but it’s up to you to keep it relatively healthy.  It’s so tempting to slather corn in butter and salt, but that means you’re voluntarily adding fats and sodium to your meal.  Since there is a ton of savory cookout food, these are two things to watch. Fats for obvious reasons – your body should only have so much in a day – and sodium for blood pressure problems and the inevitable problem of water retention.  Be sure to keep your corn as condiment-free as possible for the cleanest meal. Another great option if you can’t resist slathering your corn on the cob in butter and salt is other grilled veggies – grilling them gives them great flavor, and you’re typically less inclined to slather these in butter.  But you should still be sure to watch your sodium intake on these.

Pasta Salad

Whether we’re talking macaroni salad or an oil & vinegar style dressing, this cookout classic is sodium-dense.  In proportion to a 2000 calorie diet, pasta salads can make up around 50% of your recommended daily sodium intake.  Plus macaroni salad is mayo based; you already know the deal with that. Lots of fat. This may be a bland recommendation, but it is a smart one.  If a regular salad option is available, go for that. It’s less calorically dense, meaning it’s a great food if you’re looking for volume. You can eat a ton of it and the calorie count is minimal – depending on what you top it with.  Our recommendation: a lower fat dressing (less calories), a serving or half a serving of unsalted almonds for some healthy fats and protein, avocado for your healthy fats if you’re not an almond person, fresh fruits (blueberries, strawberries, grapes, apples), or sunflower kernels (yay for fiber!).

Tortilla Chips and Salsa / Potato Chips and Dip

Both tortilla chips and potato chips are sodium traps.  Super delicious, but not the best for your overall health.  Dips are typically sour cream based, making them fat-based, and not necessarily the good kind of fat either.  Additionally, the serving size on these dips are about 1 tablespoon… and as we all know, that is near-impossible to stick to when chips and dip are such an irresistible combo.  If you can manage your portion sizes on these, you can probably afford to work these into your cookout palate. Getting to salsa; it’s really not a bad way to get some flavorful carbs in.  Our recommendation? Go for raw veggies dipped in either salsa or hummus. This is a healthier route and great for volume if that’s what you’re looking for. Just watch your dipping – nothing is good in excess.

Baked beans

Baked beans have a mixed reputation.  Some laud them for being healthy and others steer entirely clear. Why? Well there are different versions of this BBQ favorite that need to be accounted for.  The kinds that are avoided by health enthusiasts are those that are high in sodium (some up to half of your daily sodium intake) and those that contain tons of sugar.  If you’re the one bringing the beans, make sure you go for the reduced sugar recipes or no-salt-added versions. Other than this stipulation, beans are a great source of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making them a great diet option.


The baked treats are always the hardest to avoid at a summer cookout.  They’re calorie-loaded, carb-heavy, sometimes fat-heavy, and typically not very protein-rich.  Popsicles (juice/water-based) are a great option to stave off a sweet tooth because while they are sugar-heavy, they amount to way fewer calories than baked goods.  Less calories doesn’t always mean better, but given the amount of food you’re probably consuming at this cookout, it’s best to go for the lower-calorie option. Another good option – jello.  It has no nutritional value, but it’s a great low-calorie dessert option and is almost solely carbs (it contains a very small amount of protein). Another tip: steer clear of the desserts at the cookout entirely and wait until you get home! This way you can pick a more preferable or healthier option instead of just eating what someone puts in front of you.

Sweet tea, beer, fruit cocktails

Drinks at cookouts are a carb-fest.  Beer? Obviously. Sweet tea and fruit cocktails? Sugar haven.  So how do we get around this if we still want to have a good time and enjoy ourselves?  Nothing beats a good sweet tea in the summer. We get it. Instead of scratching it completely, try a half-sweet, half-unsweet tea.  It’s a decent compromise: a little less of that classic sweet tea taste for way less sugar and carbs. Not too bad of a trade-off. As for beer, go for light beers.  Or opt for a dry wine instead if the cookout only has regular beers. Instead of fruit cocktails, try these modifications: a shot of your favorite liquor chased with lemon or lime, a gin and tonic with fruit garnishes, tequila and lime club soda, a mojito (but watch the sugar), the list goes on.  If you ever run out of ideas, Pinterest is your friend.

Also, a shameless plug for water: HYDRATE. Your body will thank you later.


Follow these tips and tricks to stay on track – or just have the ultimate cheat day.  No judgement. Chances are the food is good, and you deserve it. Happy BBQ season!


Comment below with your favorite tips, tricks, and food ideas; we love to hear from you!

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