The Best Foods to Choose at a Summer BBQ

It’s possible to indulge in some of your favorite food and beverages without totally destroying your diet.

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Cookouts are a summer staple, but they're not often known for their wholesome food selections. Sticking with reasonable portions of your favorites, such as ribs, hot dogs and potato salad, is one way to enjoy the holiday, but there may be some better-for-you foods to sink your teeth into.

Can't choose between a hotdog and a hamburger? Unsure whether creamy potato salad is healthier than coleslaw? Read on for tips for navigating your next backyard 'que.

Medically reviewed in June 2021.

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Hotdogs vs. hamburgers

You can't have a proper cookout without burgers and dogs, but which one packs more nutrition?  

Not including any toppings, a single beef frank contains roughly 150 calories and just 5 grams of protein. Enjoying it with a potato roll adds 140 calories, 24 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of sugar. Each frankfurter contains almost 14 grams of fat.

A plain hamburger packs more calories, but leaner beef has fewer saturated fat and way more protein (about 21 grams). A flame-broiled 3-ounce patty made with 90 percent lean ground beef contains 180 calories and just under 4 grams of saturated fat. Choosing the 80 percent lean meat adds 50 calories and 1.5 grams of fat per burger. Serving either hamburger on a doughy roll adds 130 calories.

Consider your health goals before making your selection. Hotdogs may save you calories but are made with processed meats loaded with excess sodium. Lean beef patties have less fat and more protein.  If turkey burgers are an option, they may be the best way to go. A 4-ounce patty made with 93 percent lean turkey has 160 calories, 22 grams of protein and 2.5 grams of saturated fat.

Munch on your pick with toppings like lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and mustard. Whichever you choose, don’t forget to enjoy it!

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Potato salad vs. coleslaw

A traditional potato salad is blended with sour cream or mayonnaise and a plethora of flavors, like vinegar, mustard and herbs. Some home cooks also incorporate diced hard-boiled eggs, along with onions and celery. Depending on how it's prepared, a cup of this side dish can deliver 355 calories and 20 grams of fat, with some varieties containing more or less.  

Coleslaw also tends to be mayo-based, stirred with cabbage, vinegar and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Various recipes will have different nutrition information, but a cup of certain homemade slaws can contain about 94 calories and 3 grams of fat. The mix offers fewer than 2 grams of protein, which is far less than the almost 7 grams a serving of potato salad has.   

If calories are a concern, coleslaw is likely the wiser choice. Scoop out about half a cup; the serving should be about the size of a tennis ball.

If you're bringing a dish to your summer get together, offer to whip up a lighter version of these salads. Skip the mayo and sour cream and stir in plain, nonfat Greek yogurt or a modest amount of mashed avocado. You can also choose to make a vinegar-based dressed for either one of these side dishes.

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Marinated veggie kabob vs. ear of corn

Don’t forget the veggies! Sweet summer corn is a staple during grilling season. Per ear, corn contains 60 calories and less than 1 gram of fat. A tablespoon of butter adds 100 calories to your corn.

You can also prep other produce options, like veggie kabobs. Colorful skewers are often made up of a number of different vegetables, each with beneficial vitamins and minerals to offer. A kabob built with a quarter cup each summer squash, white button mushrooms, red bell pepper and chopped onion has just 37 calories and is rich in vitamins A and C.    

Veggies coated in marinades and dressings may contain more calories than you realize. A tablespoon of Italian dressing adds 55 calories, and a similar serving of BBQ sauce has about 50.

Regardless of preparation, both of these picks are likely to be some of the healthier dishes at a cookout.

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Shrimp cocktail (with sauce) vs. deviled eggs

Both shrimp cocktail and deviled eggs are easy make-ahead appetizers for an outdoor party.

Classic deviled eggs are made by removing the yolks from hard-boiled eggs and mixing the creamy yellow centers with mayonnaise, mustard and paprika. Some even add a touch of vinegar or sweet relish before piping the smooth mixture back into the hollowed egg whites. Depending on the specific ingredients, a whole egg—two filled halves—can add between 90 and 130 calories, 10 or 11 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein to your plate.

A shrimp cocktail contains 22 calories per four large shrimp. They also offer just under 5 grams of protein and less than a quarter of a gram of fat. If accompanied by cocktail sauce, it adds 28 calories per once plus almost 2 grams of sugar.

Sauce included, shrimp are probably the more health-conscious choice. If you're looking to avoid added sugar and sodium found in cocktail sauce (215 milligrams per ounce), plate up a few with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. But if you love a good deviled egg, celebrate the day with one—and lose any feelings of guilt.

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Frozen margarita vs. beer

It’s common to see coolers of cocktails at most backyard bbqs, but it’s important not to over-indulge. In fact, too much alcohol can lead to hangovers, impaired judgement and increased feelings of anxiety in the short-term. Major health problems, like high blood pressure and liver disease, can also occur if you drink excessively over time.

If you don’t already drink, don’t start. But if you want a bbq cocktail, just be sure to remember the recommended guidelines: no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men. 

If you do decide to drink it’s often important to be aware of the alcohol content and size of your drink. The alcohol pours for margaritas and other typical bar-bought cocktails are usually closer to 8 or 12 ounces of liquid, much more than a recommended serving size. A standard drink has 1.5 ounces of liquor, and tequila has about 104 calories per serving. Blending up a cocktail of epic proportion could run you about 300 calories—or more. The mix also delivers 22 grams of sugar per serving—enough to spike your glucose levels.
A 12-ounce can of traditional American lager holds 153 calories, which is half as much as an 8-ounce margarita. Many party-goers are now opting for alcoholic seltzer beverages since they are often touted as low sugar and calories. However, they still have the same alcohol beverage content (ABV) as a light beer. Regardless of what you choose, stay within the recommended daily limits. 

You can try bbq-friendly nonalcoholic beverages too, like water or zero-calorie seltzer flavored with a squeeze of citruses like lemon or grapefruit. 

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Berry trifle vs. frozen fruit pops

No, you don’t just have to stick to fruit salad at a party. Store-bought fruity ice pops are refreshing—some brands contain fewer than 100 calories. You can also try whipping up your own batch by pureeing your favorite seasonal fruit. Mix in pieces of whole fruit or plain, nonfat Greek yogurt and freeze in molds.

Baked fruit desserts are often a cookout staple. One popular pick is mixed berry trifle, a layered dish that typically includes a combination of berries—like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries—whipped cream and soft cookies or cake. The dessert may seem light and airy, but some recipes contain more than 500 calories per serving, not to mention upwards of 40 grams of sugar.

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