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A little vacation in your backyard

Plan a healthy cookout with a lighter menu for summer grilling

Melissa Erickson, More Content Now

A backyard cookout is as American as apple pie. But with all the grilled meats, calorie-laden sides and alcoholic beverages — oh, and apple pie — it can also be a diet disaster.

“Summer cookouts are a great way to get together with family and friends, and it can be easy to make your cookout a healthy one. Lots of cookout foods can be modified to be leaner and healthier, and a variety of lighter sides can be provided to balance heavier meat items,” said Beth Bluestone, a Cleveland Clinic dietitian.

Lighter sides

Lighten up the menu by offering a variety of sides.

“These can be anything from salad to grilled vegetables,” Bluestone said. “The classic pasta salad can be made with whole grain pasta or even a bean-based pasta. These both provide an excellent source of fiber to help you feel more satisfied and prevent spikes in your blood sugar. I like to load up any pasta salad with a variety of vegetables like bell peppers, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini.”

Traditional mayonnaise-based coleslaw may be a favorite, but it’s packed with fat and calories. One tablespoon of Kraft mayonnaise has 100 calories and 11 grams of fat, according to

Instead try making it with a vinegar base.

“This will help cut the fat and still add tons of flavor,” Bluestone said. “Or, you can make a spiralized vegetable salad, using yellow squash, zucchini, carrots and cucumber with a zesty vinaigrette.”

For dessert, fruit salad is always a crowd-pleaser.

“Also, sliced watermelon and fresh berries are classic cookout dessert staples. If you are looking for a way to change it up, try grilled peaches or pineapple,” Bluestone said.

Main course

Heating up the grill? Think beyond basic brats and burgers. Grilled portobello mushrooms have a meaty texture and hold up nicely on the grill without falling apart, Bluestone said. Bean-based burgers are delicious when topped with sliced avocado.

For those looking for a leaner meat, try turkey burgers or chicken patties, which are available to buy premade.

“I like to top mine with mushrooms and onions. Also, you could make chicken-and-veggie kabobs. Just make sure to go heavy on the veggies,” Bluestone said.

If you’re a little more adventurous, try grilled tofu or vegan sausage. Fish lovers will enjoy a burger made of salmon, which is packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

“They hold up on the grill and go well with avocado,” Bluestone said.

Grilled marinated chicken can still be on the menu.

“If you’re a fan of barbecue chicken, look for a barbecue sauce that is not loaded with added sugar. Try for less than 4 grams per serving,” Bluestone said.

Calorie-free drinks

Skip the alcohol and explore calorie-free beverages.

“Make a pitcher of water with sliced cucumber and mint. It is very refreshing on a hot summer day. You also can flavor your water with frozen berries. I enjoy making a pitcher of mint and green iced tea,” Bluestone said.

Shop for beverages that have no calories or artificial sweeteners. There are options that have a hint of flavor without the added sugar, Bluestone said: Use sparkling or mineral water and add a squeeze of lime, lemon or orange.

Keep your cookout fun and focus on friends, not just the food.

“Add fun games and activities,” Bluestone said. “A game of volleyball or Frisbee is a great way to burn off some cookout calories.”

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