7 Classic BBQ Sides Made Healthier

From potato salad to cole slaw, your summer favorites just got a little lighter.

Medically reviewed in May 2023

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Watching your weight at weekend parties can seem like a real drag. But you don't have to munch on celery sticks while everyone else is chowing down on creamy potato salad this summer. Just lighten up some of those traditional side dishes. A few swaps here and there will have you on your way to the healthiest, most delicious classic barbecue sides of the summer.

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Corn on the cob

All you need to do here is dodge the butter, which is simple. These alternatives are just as tasty: 

  • Like tequila, corn's terrific with a squeeze of lime juice and a little salt.
  • Brush your kernels with olive oil and sprinkle them with red pepper flakes.
  • Roll those ears in some mixed herbs, like basil and oregano, or spices like ginger and curry powder.

If you really want your corn buttered, a little bit goes a long way. Or, if you've lucked into just-picked, unbelievably sweet, fresh summer corn, do the most delicious thing of all: eat it naked.

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Many people enjoy coleslaw with their pulled pork sandwich or burger. But there's a way to scarf this summer classic without all of the calories. Try substitutions like light mayonnaise or using fat-free dressing. Vinegar based slaws are just as tasty while letting the flavor of the veggies really shine through. You can even make this low-fat apple bok choy salad recipe if you really want to spice things up. 

Bonus tip: savvy cooks swear the secret to great slaw is making it the night before. That way, the veggies have time to absorb the dressing's flavors.

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Baked beans

The nutritional wonders of antioxidant-rich, protein-packed beans can be undermined by the fattiness of added bacon. Consider ditching the bacon to trim off as much as 16 grams of fat per serving. Cut down on added sugar while adding chopped onion, bell pepper and liquid smoke for flavor—no one will miss the fat.

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Potato salad

This picnic favorite is notorious for its high glycemic index (GI), which sends your blood sugar soaring. To keep it on an even keel, cook the potatoes the night before and refrigerate them. The next day, make the salad German-style, using white vinegar and olive oil rather than mayonnaise. Use two parts oil to seven parts vinegar, and season with mustard, parsley and just a smidge of sugar. The refrigeration combined with the vinegar creates some nifty kitchen chemistry to neutralize the potatoes' blood sugar hit.

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Pasta salad

Nothing makes a backyard BBQ quite like homemade pasta salad, but it could be packing a lot of calories. Instead of refined white pasta—another high-GI, low-nutrient food—consider using whole-wheat pasta, which has a lower glycemic index, filling fiber, and more good-for-you nutrients. Getting enough fiber may also help lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease, stroke obesity and diabetes.

Whether you're using white or wheat pasta, don't forget to pack your dish with fresh herbs and veggies. They're plentiful in summer, loaded with nutrients and add color and crunch to your meal.

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Fruit Salad

At first glance, it seems impossible to make this seasonal side unhealthy. But many fruit salads are dressed in a sugar syrup. Others use canned fruits as their foundation, which are packed with added sugars.

Keep your fruit salad simple. Find the freshest berries, melons or stone fruits, chop them up and toss them together. That’s it. Your salad will stay healthy and taste amazing.

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Chips and dip

Salty potato chips and creamy onion dip are great for gatherings—until the calories start adding up. Instead, consider serving pretzel crisps, baked chips or veggies. Dunk 'em in homemade salsa or a dip packed with healthy fats like guacamole. Check out these healthy dip recipes for your next outdoor get-together.

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The dessert buffet

Start with watermelon—it’s traditional, irresistible and remarkably healthy. If you're ambitious, scoop out the insides with a melon baller, then mix the melon balls with berries and mint leaves, and use the watermelon's shell as a serving bowl. Or go for grilled fruit; the heat heightens the flavors, and it's fun to do as the embers die down.

For a baked dessert, make an angel food cake. It’s naturally low-cal and goes great with grilled fruit. Or, you could whip up an old-fashioned apple crisp, leaving the peel on to retain the antioxidants and fiber. Not bad for a party dessert!

The payoff? Avoiding foods with saturated and trans fats, simple sugars, or processed grains can make your RealAge 3.6 years younger.

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