When most people think of a cookout, they have visions of hot dogs, hamburgers, creamy potato salad and chips — all foods that can weigh heavily on your heart and wreak havoc on your waistline. It may seem impossible to make healthy food choices at these get-togethers, but you really can enjoy a fun, flavorful and healthy cookout by following the simple tips below.

Choose a Lean Entrée

Instead of high-fat hamburgers and hot dogs, choose lower-fat proteins. It’ll be a great change-up from traditional cookout foods, and your guests will be delighted. Here are some tasty entrée ideas:

  • Fresh fish can be grilled whole, in steaks or filets, or on a kebob. Salmon, grouper, shrimp and tuna are great grilling options.
  • Whole chicken or chicken breasts can be made in a variety of ways, like marinating with chipotle seasoning, vinaigrettes, barbecue sauce, jerk sauce or Cajun seasoning. If using chicken with skin, remove the skin before eating.
  • Lean pork or beef tenderloin, trimmed of fat.
  • Vegetable-based burgers. Portobello, black bean, roasted vegetable or burgers made with textured vegetable protein are flavorful options.
  • Grilled vegetables make for a great entrée themselves, especially veggies with hearty flavors like portobello mushrooms, squash, onions and peppers.
  • Turkey or chicken burgers made with all-white-meat ground turkey or chicken.

Lighten up the Salad

Liven up pasta and potato salad with these ideas to limit saturated fat:

  • Add grilled, raw or roasted vegetables. They’ll help bulk up the salad while lowering the calorie count.
  • Use a flavorful vinaigrette dressing instead of a creamy dressing. Try a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, an acid (such as lemon juice, red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar) and fresh herbs and spices.
  • If you just can’t do without the creamy potato salad, substitute full-fat mayonnaise with light mayo or light sour cream. Use small amounts of creamy toppings and add flavor with pickle juice, lemon juice or fresh herbs.
  • Try using spicy arugula pesto or traditional basil pesto sauce in your pasta salad for a refreshing, healthy change.
  • Choose whole wheat farfalle (bowtie), penne (tubular), or fusilli (spiral) pasta instead of enriched pasta. Or, make the salad using half enriched pasta and half whole wheat pasta.
  • Dijon mustard is a great addition to vinaigrettes, as are rice wine, balsamic and champagne vinegars. To give a southwestern pasta salad some kick, add some adobo sauce or chopped chipotle peppers.

Add a Healthy Side Dish

Instead of high-fat potato chips and other unhealthy snacks, try some of these ideas:

  • Fresh fruit kebobs. Put fresh strawberries, melon, grapes and pineapple on skewers, or toss it all into a big bowl and enjoy!
  • Mozzarella, cherry tomato and basil kebobs are delicious! You can also layer the ingredients on a tray and sprinkle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a refreshing side dish.
  • Instead of fried chips, try serving veggie chips, but not the bagged kinds! Thinly slice jicama, carrot coins, zucchini and cucumber and serve with hummus.
  • Zesty corn and black bean salad.
  • Serve baked tortilla chips with fresh salsa or guacamole.
  • Make a beautiful array of grilled vegetables and serve warm or at room temperature.
  • Serve corn on the cob with a variety of toppings like lime juice and grated parmesan cheese.
  • Prepare a tricolor salad made with radicchio, endive and arugula. Toss with a red wine vinaigrette dressing.
  • Offer fresh whole wheat pita with olives, tabbouleh salad and hummus.

Go Light on the Drinks

Instead of high-calorie, sugary drinks, try offering these refreshing choices:

  • Ice water with cucumber and lemon slices.
  • Sparkling water “spiked” with a dash of 100% fruit juice.
  • Fresh squeezed lemonade with a small amount of sugar.
  • Black or green unsweetened tea.

Cookouts should be enjoyed in the company of family and friends, and not create a stressful environment that wreaks havoc on your health goals. Enjoy trying the variety of substitutions provided, and don’t be afraid to make healthier changes to your family favorite recipes!

Reviewed: 10/13

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy