9 Tips for Enjoying a Healthier Summer Barbecue

Dr. Christopher McGowan
July 9, 2022

Summer is officially here, traditionally the season for firing up the grill and gathering together for a backyard barbecue. However, if you are trying to lose weight, this type of event can actually be a source of stress and anxiety—not because you don’t enjoy socializing with your family, friends, and neighbors, but because you fear the temptation of eating too many calories, sugars, and saturated fats. You might ask yourself, “Is one evening at a backyard barbecue worth blowing my diet or taking steps backward with my weight loss goals?”

Tips for Staying Healthy at a Summer BBQ

Don’t fret—there are many healthy options that can be incorporated into any summer party, as well as strategies you can use to stay on track while having some fun and soaking in quality time with your family and friends. Here are nine tips for enjoying a healthier, guilt-free backyard barbecue.

  1. Don’t Go Hungry: Be sure to eat a healthy snack at home before the barbecue. This will take away some of the worry associated with attending the event, such as wondering when the meal will be served or feeling anxious that there won’t be enough healthy options to satisfy your hunger. It will also help curb your appetite so you don’t eat as much come mealtime.
  2. Eat Your Protein First: The good news is that summer barbecues are often centered around grilling lean meats for the main course. This includes grilled chicken, fish, and even lean hamburger meat. When sitting down to enjoy your meal, you should eat your lean proteins first. This will promote a feeling of fullness and likely be a strategy to help you avoid eating more later.
  3. Use Herbs, Spices & Citrus for Flavor: If you are hosting a barbecue or providing meat for the main course, marinate your meats in a variety of herbs, spices, and citrus juices. They are much lower in sugar, sodium, and calories than your typical marinades and barbecue sauces. Vinegar is also a healthy marinade ingredient, adding tanginess without the extra calories.
  4. Bring Your Own Healthy Side Dish: If you are a guest attending a backyard barbecue, bring your own side dish made from ingredients that you know fit within the limits of your diet. Therefore, you can feel confident that eating your own side dish along with a grilled meat for your main course can satisfy your hunger at mealtime. The healthiest side dishes avoid ingredients such as butter, mayonnaise, or processed oils, such as vegetable oil. Try making a vinegar-based coleslaw, or roast a mix of starchy and non-starchy vegetables. When roasting vegetables, use three to five different colored vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, red onion, zucchini, and/or squash. Whole wheat pasta salad can also be delicious and healthier than your typical pasta salad. Make it heavy on the vegetables such as cucumbers and broccoli, and use low-fat cheese, and olive or avocado oil, which are high in those beneficial omega 3 fatty acids.
  5. Be Creative with Substitutions: Unfortunately, some of our favorite condiments are high in unhealthy fats and sugars, such as mayonnaise and ketchup. Allow the majority of your added flavors to come from fresh substitutes like tomatoes, mustard, lettuce and pickles—and a smaller amount of condiment if you wish. Additionally, hidden calories and sugars are often found in traditional hamburger buns. Try going without the bun, choosing a whole wheat bun for added fiber, or using a lettuce wrap.
  6. Don’t Graze: Mindless grazing and picking at appetizers can prevent you from being mindful about the amount of food you are consuming. Therefore, be sure to intentionally place your food on your plate and sit down to thoughtfully eat it. Start with small portions, as you can always go back for more later if you are still hungry. Being mindful of your meal and your portions will help you stay in control of your eating during the event. 
  7. Stay Hydrated: Hydrating with water is always important, especially at an event that involves a lot of eating and socializing. Drinking plenty of water before and during the barbecue can support your weight loss goals by filling your stomach and therefore reducing your intake of sugar, sodium, and saturated fats. It also supports the removal of harmful waste from your system through urination—your body’s natural detoxification system. Make your water more appealing and flavorful by adding a splash of juice, a few squeezes of citrus and/or pieces of fresh fruit. Additionally, try to avoid alcohol, which can fill your body with empty calories and reduce your inhibitions, making you eat and drink even more.
  8. Allow the Food to Take a Backseat: Challenge yourself to shift your mindset. Think about the barbecue event as an opportunity to surround yourself with community and to socialize with family, friends, and neighbors, rather than focusing so much on the food. Allow yourself to get more involved in conversation and fellowship, instead of taking too many trips to the food table.
  9. Don’t Worry About What Other People Think: We all have that friend or family member who likes to tempt us with food or drinks, encouraging that second helping or additional cocktail. Sometimes, we worry that they are judging us on how little or how much we eat. Just remember that it is always okay to politely decline. Explain that you are currently under the advisement of a dietitian and that he or she does not recommend certain food or drink choices. You can also explain that you are really trying hard to work on your health and that things like portion control and healthier options are very important to you right now. However, also remember that, in most cases, people are not paying as much attention to what you are eating as you think they are.

During any weight loss journey, socialization and life enjoyment are still very important to your mental and emotional well-being, as is the action of surrounding yourself with supportive loved ones and friends. Don’t shy away from summer get-togethers just because you are worried about the menu or the impact on your diet. With a little planning and the right mindset, you can enjoy a healthy and fun backyard barbecue—without the stress.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan
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