How to throw a healthy summer cookout

Cookouts are an enjoyable summer activity, but the food selection might hinder you from maintaining your nutrition goals. A Baylor College of Medicine dietitian offers alternative, healthy ingredients so you don’t have to stress for your upcoming Labor Day cookout.

“All foods can fit in a healthy diet,” said Sarah Mahlke, senior program management associate at the Weight Loss and Metabolic Center at Baylor Medicine. “One day will not ruin a lifetime of healthy eating, so if you want to eat these foods on a holiday, that’s fine.”

An outdoor picnic spread with burgers, hot dogs and healthy vegetable kebabs.Protein and vegetables

When preparing hotdogs and burgers, choose leaner and less processed meats, such as 100% beef hotdogs with no preservatives or a 93% lean burger. Mahlke also suggests substituting your burger with a veggie burger, bean burger or turkey burger as a healthier alternative.

Other protein alternatives to serve include grilled chicken, fish or shrimp, which are all lower in saturated fats than traditional burgers or hotdogs.

“Try not to char-grill your food where it gets that crust, because that does increase your risk for cancer. Cooking on the grill is fine, but not to the point of your food being blackened,” she said.

If you’re already grilling, put some vegetables on the grill to make your meal more nutritious. Summer squash is popular on the grill and in season.


If you want to make coleslaw or other salads, make them with a vinaigrette, which will have less saturated fat than a mayo-based salad. If you prefer a creamy-based salad, substitute the mayonnaise with plain Greek, which contains probiotics, less fat and more protein.


Try home-made baked beans with less sugar than the canned version for a healthier dish. Mahlke also recommends making a bean salad with a vinaigrette or cowboy caviar, a salad containing a variety of beans and other fresh ingredients.

Cocktails and mocktails

Cocktails and mocktails often contain ample sugar, so try to mix with lower-sugar beverages like unsweetened soda water or sparkling water. If you are indulging in alcohol, stay hydrated and alternate your alcoholic beverage with a nonalcoholic beverage.

Mahlke suggests healthier beverages to serve at your cookout:

  • Nonalcoholic mojito: Muddle lime and mint, then add soda water or flavored soda water
  • Rosé cocktail: a small amount of rosé (less than a regular glass), topped off with soda water and frozen raspberries

“Adding frozen fruit to cocktails or mocktails is one of my favorite ways to stay cool and add additional flavor,” she said.


Incorporate fruit in your desserts, such as grilled peaches with Cool Whip or a fruit salad. Another option is watermelon salad with a balsamic glaze, feta and basil.

Plate method

Remember to use the plate method when portioning your meal:

  • Half: non-starchy vegetables
  • One quarter: protein
  • One quarter: carbohydrates

“Make sure you’re getting enough fiber from those non-starchy vegetables,” Mahlke said.

By Homa Shalchi

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