Cookout Commandments: What to Eat (and Avoid) at Your Summer BBQ

This guide will help you enjoy your summer cookout without sabotaging your training efforts.

With July 4th right around the corner, it's the perfect time to talk about a classic American summer tradition—cookouts. They are not exactly conducive to healthy eating. With friends, family and tons of food around, it can be easy to mindlessly munch on guilty pleasures. But a little bit of effort goes a long way. By knowing which foods to pile on your plate and which foods to pass on, you can enjoy a cookout without regretting it the next day. Here are some simple, easy-to-remember rules that can help you eat smart at your next backyard BBQ.

Pick Your Protein Wisely

Pick Your Protein Wisely

When the grill's fired up, you're sure to find a variety of meats sizzling away on top. Hamburgers and hot dogs are the traditional fare, but they aren't necessarily the best choices in terms of nutrition. Hot dogs are stuffed with fat, saturated fat, sodium and preservatives and are almost completely devoid of useful vitamins and nutrients. Their protein-to-calorie ratio is poor. One hot dog contains 151 calories but only 5 grams of protein. The nutrition profile of sausages and brats is usually even worse. A single serving frequently contains more than a third of your daily saturated fat and more than a quarter of your daily sodium. If you can't resist, try to limit yourself to just one.

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With hamburgers, it comes down to how lean they are. A burger made with 95 percent lean ground beef has half the saturated fat and 113 fewer calories than a burger made with the standard 80 percent lean ground beef, and just as much protein with 29 grams per 4-ounce serving. If the burger's lean, go for it. If not, opt for a different choice. Bison or turkey burgers are superior options, and grilled chicken is an awesome source of lean protein. Seafood is also a great choice. Salmon is low in calories but high in protein, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, and shrimp has plenty of protein and almost no fat.

Choose Smart Sides

Choose Smart Sides

Sides can make or break your meal. At a cookout, you'll find a wide array of sides whose nutrition varies from awesome to atrocious. Produce is always a great choice. Watermelon is low in calories, high in vitamin A and C, and great for staying hydrated. Grilled vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, onions, squash and asparagus are awesome choices, since they are high in vitamins and low in calories. Snacking on a veggie platter is great as long as you aren't drowning it in ranch dressing.

Baked beans are a solid choice. They're high in fiber and other useful nutrients. They do have a significant amount of sugar, so try to limit yourself to a single serving. Potato chips, tortilla chips and pretzels are essentially empty calories, so either skip them or limit yourself to just a few. Whole-grain crackers are a better option, as their high fiber content can help you stay full.

All Salads Aren't Created Equal

All Salads Aren't Created Equal

Although "salad" has become synonymous with "health" over the years, not every salad is good for you. For proof, look no further than your local backyard BBQ. Mayonnaise-based salads like potato salad, cole slaw and macaroni salad are all cookout mainstays, but they're also packed with fat and sodium and low in vitamins. Better options include fruit salad or a traditional green salad with a low-fat dressing.

Easy on the Dips and Condiments

Easy on the Dips and Condiments

With all that food around, there are usually plenty of options for dipping and topping. Skip the French onion and ranch dips; they're nothing but empty calories and fat. Hummus is a better choice. It's high in fiber, protein and healthy fats. Guacamole is another good one, as its main ingredient, avocado, is high in fiber, potassium and healthy fat.

Mustard is lower in calories and higher in fiber than ketchup, but both condiments contain unique helpful nutrients. Mustard has glucosinolates, and ketchup has lycopene, both of which help to fight cancer. Just be sure to stick with the recommended serving size, which is smaller than you might think. BBQ sauce is not a good choice. It is packed with sugar and has no redeeming nutritional qualities.

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Avoid Sugary Drinks

Avoid Sugary Drinks

A cooler stocked with soda is a frequent sight at neighborhood cookouts. Skipping soda will save you a ton of added sugar and empty calories. Processed fruit juice and sweetened ice tea have many of the same issues, so its best to avoid those as well.

When it comes to beverages, you can't beat plain old water. Water helps your body flush out toxins and aids in nearly every important bodily process. Throw in some fruit to enhance the taste if plain water is too boring.

Take One, then Ditch the Dessert Table

Take One, then Ditch the Dessert Table

A massive dessert table is a fixture at most backyard BBQs. Since avoiding it altogether might be nearly impossible, use self-restraint. Instead of grabbing a different treat every time you wander by, eat one cookie or brownie after your meal, and then stay away. If you're still craving something sweet, grab some fruit.


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Topics: PROTEIN | NUTRITION | FIBER | VITAMINS | WATER | SODIUM | CALORIES | FRUIT | SALAD | SATURATED FAT | NUTRIENTS | BURGERS