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How to Lighten Summer BBQ Staples (Without Sacrificing On Taste)

Beth Janes
Jul 19, 2022

Chicken smothered in sticky-sweet sauce. Creamy potato salad. Buttery corn on the cob. Your mouth watering? Or are you sweating how to stick to your healthy-eating goals while still enjoying all the foods that make a classic backyard feast, well, delicious? Great news: You can have your fave barbecue go-tos and stay on track, too. The key is to balance your favorites with some healthy barbecue recipes.

A good rule of thumb is to pick one or two of your ultimate favorite dishes to indulge in as-is: “Occasional indulgences are perfectly fine, but ‘splurging’ can add up and set you back on your health goals,” says Emily Navarro, RDN. So for the rest of the meal, here are her suggestions for making smart swaps that deliver all the flavor and nostalgia of the killer dishes you love without killing you with calories, fat, sugar and carbs.

Is BBQ food *actually* bad for you?

Not necessarily—traditional recipes for the BBQ meat itself tend to use fattier cuts and sugar-laden sauces. Conventional BBQ sides can also be pretty unhealthy and high-calorie: mayonnaise-heavy potato salad, butter-slathered corn, you know the drill.

And then there’s the actual barbecuing itself: Though the research is still conflicting, some studies show that regular consumption of charred meat can be potentially dangerous. A 2010 review indicated that a high-intake of well-done meat and high exposure to meat carcinogens may increase the risk of human cancer. However, eating an occasional juicy burg is totally okay.

Is corn on the cob healthy?

Hold the butter and salt and grab lime wedges the next time you’re craving corn. “A squeeze of fresh lime juice and a sprinkle of chili powder adds a zesty kick for a fraction of the calories,” Navarro says.

Should you pass on the pasta and potato salads?

Maybe pasta salad is your favorite barbecue staple, in which case you should enjoy it in moderation exactly how it is. But if it doesn’t top your list of dishes, consider opting for healthy potato salad instead. “Double the veggies to reduce the amount of noodles,” Navarro suggests. “Better yet, replace traditional noodles with chickpea pasta.” The bean-based, gluten-free noodles contain about two-thirds more protein and more than double the fiber. Want to go even lighter for this healthy barbecue recipe? Spiralized zucchini or sweet potatoes add lots of color and nutrients.

On the potato side of things, the classic side in its traditional mayo-laden form definitely doesn’t count as a healthy barbecue recipe, but there are ways to make a healthy potato salad without sacrificing the flavor or comfort. Get the same creaminess but with healthier fats by using a “green goddess” style dressing made with avocado instead, Navarro says. The light but rich, garlic and herb flavor elevates an otherwise simple dish. Or, brighten and lighten up with an olive-oil-based vinaigrette or simply drizzle on your favorite vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

What's hiding in Barbecue sauce?

Bottled versions are often loaded with sugar, especially refined sources like high-fructose corn syrup, Navarro warns. So check the label to find one with sugar or brown sugar, and make sure it isn’t one of the first few ingredients. “Some sauces can contain up to 16g sugar per 2 tbsp! So look for those that have around 8g sugar or less,” she says. You can also make your own. “Try those with unrefined sweeteners, like honey, which is what we do for our Backyard Barbecue Chicken recipe,” she says. If you want a truly healthy barbecue sauce, skip the sugar and load up on low-calorie, flavor-packed ingredients like vinegar and spices.

Do healthy burgers exist?

Skip the carb-bomb bun to automatically eighty-six empty calories, Navarro suggests. You can still load it with fixins and wrap in lettuce or a sturdy collard green leaf. Or, consider trading your patty for a hearty plant-based main course like grilled cabbage steak, romaine hearts, zucchini slices or bell peppers. “Produce is at its peak during the summer, which means veggies are bursting with flavor!” she says. Brush with oil, season with salt and pepper and grill until slightly charred, then top with a light dressing or lemon juice.

Do you have to stick to drinking water?

“Lemonade, sweet tea and their spiked versions are notoriously high in sugar,” Navarro says. Instead, try pouring herbal fruit tea over ice or soak citrus fruits, cucumber slices or herbs in sparkling H2O. “They also make great mixers instead of the high-sugar, bottled ones,” she says. Just stir in a shot of vodka or tequila. The new, popular “hard seltzers” can also be a good choice, just be sure to avoid those with added sugar—and remember moderation is key.

What about dessert?

Satisfy your sweet tooth and get a side of fiber and antioxidants with fresh, juicy, in-season fruit like peaches, nectarines, plums and berries topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt, Navarro says. (Try grilling stone fruit halves first to caramelize the natural sugars for a healthy barbecue recipe that’s bursting with natural sweetness.) Missing the crunch of a crust? Top with toasted almonds, pecans or oats.

Check out our new Backyard BBQ Chicken meal, featuring a sauce that’s sweetened with honey instead of processed sugars and a hefty serving of veggies with mustard greens and cauliflower rice.

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How to Lighten Summer BBQ Staples (Without Sacrificing On Taste)