Cookout Foods: Your Best and Worst Choices

With these healthy BBQ menu ideas, you can cook out without doing in your diet.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Is it possible to cook out without doing in your diet? It all depends on the menu at your BBQ.

Consider this question: What's the difference between a half-pound hamburger with a side of potato salad (2/3 cup), and a 1/4-pound sirloin burger on a whole-grain bun with a side of fresh fruit salad (1 cup)? Answer: The first option has 500 more calories and 38 more grams of fat.

Or, if you choose a light hot dog (like Ball Park Light) on a whole grain bun with a side of three-bean salad made with light vinaigrette (2/3 cup), instead of a regular hot dog on a white bun accompanied by a bag of chips, you'll cut 170 calories and 23 grams of fat (and add 8 grams of fiber to boot.)

As these examples show, the menu items you choose during cookout season can be pretty healthy -- or not! Read on for some of your best and worst cookout options, from buns to burgers and side dishes to treats.

Healthy Meat Choices for Your BBQ

It's not only which meat you choose to throw on the grill that counts, but also the portion size. People tend to eat what's on their plate, so to cut calories and fat from your entree, stick to sensible servings.

This means a quarter-pound burger instead of a third- or half-pounder, and a regular-sized light hot dog instead of an oversized sausage frank or link. And you don't need an 8- to 12-ounce steak on your plate -- a 4-ounce lean steak can be just enough when served with a couple of BBQ sides.

Whatever meat you choose at your cookout, there is almost always a lighter, better option. For example:

Want a beef burger?

  • BEST CHOICE: Make it ground sirloin or extra-lean ground beef with 6 to 9% fat (94 to 91% fat-free).
  • WORST CHOICE: Regular ground beef formed into a half-pound burger.

Want a hot dog?

  • BEST CHOICES: Make it a light beef or turkey frank (Ball Park Lite franks contain 7 grams of fat).
  • WORST CHOICES: A colossal or jumbo-sized hot dog or frankfurter (about 4 ounces) like Miller's Colossal Beef Frankfurters, Nathan's Dinner Beef Franks, or Hebrew National quarter pound Beef Franks.

Want a sausage link?

  • BEST CHOICE: Make it a "lite" or reduced-fat sausage link. These generally contain at least part poultry instead of pork, like Hillshire Farms Turkey Polska Kielbasa with 90 calories and 5 grams of fat per 2 ounce serving.
  • WORST CHOICES: Polish sausage links, hot links, smoked sausage, smoked bratwurst, or polska kielbasa links.

Want chicken?

  • BEST CHOICES: Make it a grilled, skinless chicken breast or thigh (half the fat is in the skin).
  • WORST CHOICES: Breaded or fried chicken or chicken patty or a grilled chicken thigh (skin on) coated with a butter-containing marinade.

Want steak?

  • BEST CHOICES: Grill a lean cut, such as London broil, top sirloin, or filet mignon, and trim off any visible fat before you marinate and grill it.
  • WORST CHOICES: Marbled steaks with visible fat, such as a T-bone steak, porterhouse, rib steak, or prime rib.

Want kabobs or skewers?

  • BEST CHOICES: Make them with marinated shrimp; boneless, skinless chicken breast, pork tenderloin, or extra-lean beef, and include lots of vegetables on the kabob as well.
  • WORST CHOICES: Any marbled steaks or other fatty meats.

Best and Worst Cookout Toppings

Once you've grilled your lean burger or light hot dog, don't ruin the healthy effect by serving it on a white, fiber-less bun topped with bacon, mayonnaise, fried onions, and/or full-fat cheese! Instead, top them with tomato, lettuce, onion, salsa, BBQ sauce, mustard, and/or reduced-fat cheese -- and serve on a whole-grain bun (they're now easy to find in most grocery stores).

  • BEST CHOICES: A tablespoon of BBQ sauce plus 2 slices of tomato and a tablespoon of chopped onion adds only 37 calories and zero fat.
  • WORST CHOICES: Traditional toppings like a tablespoon of mayonnaise (or mayo-based spread) with 2 strips of bacon and a slice of cheddar cheese add about 265 calories, 24 grams of fat and 9 grams of saturated fat.

Best and Worst BBQ Side Dishes

Creamy salads like coleslaw, macaroni, or potato salad are popular BBQ side dishes. But they don't have to spell diet disaster. Any recipe for these creamy salads can be lightened by using 1/2 cup of light mayonnaise plus 1/2 cup of fat-free sour cream for every cup of mayonnaise the recipe calls for. You can even increase the fiber in macaroni salad by using whole grain blend macaroni pasta.

And for the healthiest BBQ sides, just “follow the bean and the green.” If you trade your creamy macaroni salad for some BBQ baked beans, you'll trim about 80 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 3 grams of saturated fat per cup. Switch that cup of potato salad for a salad made with 2 cups romaine, 1 tomato, and 1 tablespoon light Italian dressing and you'll cut 250 calories, 15 fat grams, and 2.5 grams of saturated fat.

  • BEST CHOICES: Baked beans (preferably made with less sugar); three-bean salad (preferably made with light vinaigrette); and green salad made with dark greens like Romaine or spinach, mixed with colorful veggies and/or fruits and dressed with reduced-fat dressing (preferably made with canola or olive oil).
  • WORST CHOICES: Mayo-drenched salads like potato and macaroni salad and coleslaw, and other salads drenched with creamy dressings.

Best and Worst Cookout Desserts

Finish your BBQ meal with a cup of fresh berries instead of a piece of double-crust berry pie and you'll save 350 calories and about 18 grams of fat. Or, choose 1/2 cup of light strawberry ice cream instead of the full-fat type and you'll lower the calories by 140, the fat grams by 13, and saturated fat by 9.

  • BEST CHOICES: The ultimate BBQ dessert is naturally sweet fresh fruit. Serve it as a fruit platter or fruit salad, or get fancy and serve grilled fruit brushed with vanilla/blackberry balsamic vinaigrette (try grilled pitted peach halves, fresh pineapple slices, sliced mango or papaya). Fresh fruit also adds color, fiber, and nutrients to a light dessert cake like angel food or light shortcake, or to a small scoop of light vanilla bean ice cream or frozen yogurt.
  • WORST CHOICES: Among the worst BBQ treats are anything with lots of sugar, heavy cream, whipped cream, or pastry crust -- like premium ice cream, double-crust pies, and rich cakes.

Published August 2008.

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

©2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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