7 Healthier Alternatives to Your Favorite Cookout Foods

Summer is the season of parties, picnics, and even the occasional reunion. No matter what type of get-together you’re headed to, you can be sure that there will be plenty of delicious summer foods. Hot dogs, potato salad, sundaes — the list goes on and on. While these eats all taste phenomenal, they aren’t exactly diet friendly. If you’re not careful, you could wind up consuming more than your fair share of calories for the day in just a few hours. But there’s no need to cancel plans if you make some smarter choices. Make these seven simple swaps and you can enjoy the flavors of your favorites without having to loosen your belt.

cheeseburger with bacon, egg, onion

Source: iStock

1. Replace a regular cheeseburger with a bison version

Fast food burgers are barely even in the same category as a patty fresh from the grill. The juicy meat paired with melted cheese and plenty of toppings makes an incredibly satisfying meal, but it’s also incredibly unhealthy. While a standard drive-through burger with all the usual toppings is around 520 calories, the ones you flip in your own backyard can do way more damage. Eating Well reported the average cookout version packs an astounding 780 calories into one sandwich. The article also noted that part of the problem is the size, because most of the ones you buy in the store are 6 ounces or more. On the other hand, there’s the meat itself.

Ground chuck is the gold standard when it comes to grilling thanks to its relatively high fat content, which helps to keep the meat moist. According to Calorie Count, 6 ounces of ground chuck has 434 calories and about 34 grams of fat. Many folks who watch what they eat opt for turkey burgers. While the patties will offer the same texture as their beef counterparts, the flavor is pretty subdued in comparison. For real beef lovers, bison makes a great stand-in. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that bison meat is just slightly higher in fat and calories than the pale poultry, and also has more zinc, iron, B vitamins, and protein.

Keep your portion to 4 ounces, and this red meat will only set you back 200 calories and 10.5 grams of fat. Another reason to give this meat a try? Bison aren’t raised with antibiotics or growth hormones. As with any burger though, watch the toppings. This recipe with wine-drenched caramelized onions, and cheddar from Epicurious offers up so many great flavors that you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

2. Replace creamy potato salad with recipes that add veggies and smarter dressings

Hot weather and rich foods call for some cool companions, and that’s where potato salad usually comes in. But with little more than boiled spuds and a mound of mayo, it’s not doing you any favors as far as nutrition is concerned. According to Calorie King, 1 cup of the cookout side tallies 358 calories and about 20 grams of fat. Most barbecues are set up as feasts that let you serve yourself, so it’s surprisingly easy to go overboard on your portion.

There are a couple of ways to lighten up potato salad without having to sacrifice any flavor. You can add fresh vegetables, switch to a smarter dressing, and even pick out a different potato. There are loads of recipes that dress the spuds with an intense vinaigrette that you might like even more. Taste of Home’s version uses a bright dressing, some green beans, and even adds a little bit of bacon for a flavorful dish that only has 112 calories per serving. If you really dig the creamy texture of mayo, try swapping in Greek yogurt for the same effect. An easy recipe flecked with dill from Table for Two shows you how to do it right. You can even try using sweet potatoes instead of white ones. We love this grilled version from Two Peas and Their Pod.

Steak, grilled

Source: iStock

3. Skip brisket and go for steak

You definitely don’t have to be from Texas to appreciate the rich flavor and juicy interior of a perfectly smoked brisket. Part of what makes the meat so flavorful is plenty of fat. A 6-ounce serving of this barbecue classic from Dickey’s Barbecue Pit contains 500 calories and 32 grams of fat, and remember, that’s before adding a bun or slathering it with sauce.

It might sound surprising, but steak is a much healthier choice. Since these cuts are tender at a rarer temperature, many men probably prefer it to a fully cooked brisket anyway. Full of B vitamins to support a healthy immune system and iron to help blood transport oxygen throughout the body, steak can be a regular part of a healthy diet. Picking the right cut is key here, because some are better than others. Men’s Fitness recommended sticking to lean cuts like top round, which contains 240 calories and 7.6 grams of fat per 6-ounce serving. Since many lean cuts are less desirable than a marbled rib-eye or porterhouse, they’re also a lot less expensive. Visit Food Network for tons of ideas on how to jazz up the red meat.

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

4. Swap out the creamy dressing in coleslaw for a vinegar-based one

Great as a sandwich topping or a side, slaw adds a cool crunch that’s welcome among all of the meat dishes at a cookout. Often, the cabbage ends up swimming in a pool of dressing that’s mostly mayonnaise and sugar. Livestrong explained that a measly ½-cup serving will cost you 150 calories and around 10 grams of fat. That means this veggie dish doesn’t do much to lighten your plate.

Don’t cut out the cabbage entirely, though. Men’s Health said this veggie doesn’t get nearly enough love despite its low calorie count and high nutritional value. The story also included a flavorful recipe for an Asian slaw that will have you wondering why you ever liked the mayo-based ones so much. The takeaway is to lose the gloppy dressing, not the veggies. Going with a vinegar-based dressing will lighten the calorie load as well as offer a refreshing tang.

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

5. Replace ribs with lean pork

Ribs are a favorite at barbecue joints all over the country. The smoky flavor is pretty hard to beat, and there’s something fun about eating right off the bone. Unfortunately, they aren’t great for your figure. Livestrong explained that ribs are high in fat, and adding a sweet sauce only makes things worse. So just how unhealthy are they? According to Calorie King, a half slab of St. Louis-style ribs from Famous Dave’s delivers a whopping 899 calories and 58 grams of fat.

You don’t have to eliminate pork from your diet entirely, though. Fattier cuts like ribs and belly have given the protein an undeservedly bad reputation. The Arizona Republic reported that leaner pork chops offer important nutrients like phosphorus and selenium. As with beef, it all comes down to choosing better cuts. Pork tenderloin is another great option. Food Network compared this cut to chicken breast with some surprising results: The tenderloin has the same amount of fat and fewer calories than the poultry favorite. To recreate the taste of ribs in a healthier format, we like this recipe from Weber Grills that coats the meat in a flavorful rub before sizzling it over the flames.

Chicago dog

Source: iStock

6. Skip pork hot dogs and try chicken ones instead

Everyone knows hot dogs are no health food, but few actually take a look to see what’s in them. The list might be a little bit shocking. Eat Clean revealed this cookout favorite is filled with everything from sieved meat to corn syrup. Many also contain nitrates, and the article went on to explain that certain animal studies have linked this substance to cancer. Strange ingredients aside, dogs are pretty high in both salt and fat. Livestrong reported that a classic pork hot dog contains 218 calories and 18 grams of fat. They can also pack well over 500 milligrams of sodium.

Options for veggie dogs are numerous, but the taste definitely doesn’t stack up to the classic. Going with one made from chicken is a good option, because you’ll get plenty of flavor with less of the bad stuff. Health picked Trader Joe’s uncured chicken hot dogs as the best option. With 9 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat, and 60 calories a pop, they’re certainly one of the best choices you’ll find in the grocery store. They’re also lower in sodium than most beef and pork varieties. Keep in mind that toppings are just as important as the dog itself. Men’s Fitness recommended going for the veggie-loaded Chicago style.

monkey tails, banana

Source: iStock

7. Get rid of the banana split and go for fruit skewers

No cookout is complete without a little dessert, and this is prime sundae season. The banana split might just be the king of these ice cream desserts, and it also reigns supreme when it comes to calories. According to Livestrong, this tasty treat could deliver upwards of 1,000 calories and 30 grams of fat. While the article goes on to offer suggestions for scaling back on this treat, that’s a pretty tall order. Many health experts recommend limiting ice cream to a ½-cup serving to keep it less than 150 calories, but that doesn’t include the fruit, chocolate, caramel, whipped cream, or nuts.

Instead of building a sundae fit for a fairy, try going a slightly different route. Fruit skewers are definitely a lot lighter, and can be just as satisfying. These Banana Split Kabobs from Lemon Tree Dwelling are mostly fruit, but still have satisfying bits of brownie, plus whipped cream and nuts. You can indulge in a couple for only a fraction of the calories you’d get from a single ice cream concoction. You could also go with a classic monkey tail recipe if you prefer to stick with something frozen.

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