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The Irony of the Summer Barbecue

Have you ever noticed the irony of our picnic and barbecue traditions?  We are celebrating the goodness of summer — the height of the fresh fruit and vegetable season. Yet these nutrient-rich foods are often the smallest part of the meal. Those that are present are often drenched with some form of added fat, salt or sugar.  We cover up the natural flavor of produce when flavor is at its peak.

Vegetables, beans and whole grains combine into delicious salads for summer meals

Southwestern Black Bean Quinoa Salad. Click on the picture and scroll down to watch Sharon Palmer, RD, author of The Plant-Powered Diet, prepare it.

Take a fresh look at your picnic and barbecue traditions. With some rethinking, these meals can become an example of good nutrition at its most delicious.

A healthful summer barbecue or picnic can have all the traditional foods. Simply shift proportions to include more of the season’s bountiful produce. Then give a little thought to potential adjustments in how dishes are made, and aim to keep portions within moderation.

Potato Salad or Pasta Salad? And what else?

Almost every picnic seems to feature potato or pasta salad – or both.  Just a half-cup of either of these salads is packed with 160 to 260 calories.  That’s about a rounded handful;  what is your portion?  If you take a substantial portion of just one, or a small amount of several types, you can easily end up with a meal’s worth of fat and calories from these dishes alone.

How many other grain products and starchy vegetables are you having at the same meal? Bread or rolls are often part of a picnic meal as well.  Unfortunately, refined grain versions are far more common than the more nutritious whole grain products. Remember, if burgers (beef, turkey, salmon or veggie) are on the menu, each traditional burger roll is equivalent to two slices of bread.  Are you also nibbling on crackers, pretzels or tortilla chips before (or along with) the meal?

  • With all these options at once, you can see how a meal can become out-of-balance.  To keep calorie consumption appropriate for their needs, most adults need to choose from among these many options and not take them all.
  • Put a new twist on the potato or pasta salad by substituting a variety of chopped vegetables for some of the higher-calorie potatoes or pasta.  Because non-starchy vegetables contain about a third the calories of an equal amount of potatoes or pasta, by making shifting the proportions in this dish, you can make a significant cut in its calories. Besides that, you can work an additional serving of vegetables into a meal, providing antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals. For example, Mary Lynn Farivari, RD, who shared tips for deliciously eating more vegetables in a previous Smart Bytes™ post, has a recipe that adds green beans to potato salad in her Healthy Palate cookbook.
  • Use whole grain pasta instead of the traditional refined versions. You won’t cut calories, but you’ll get more dietary fiber, nutrients and antioxidant phytochemicals (such as phenols).  For even more variety, try other grain-based salads using whole grains such as brown rice or a mixture of brown and wild rice, quinoa (a delicious gluten-free whole grain) or bulgur (essential ingredient of the Middle Eastern salad called tabbouleh that’s a hit every time I serve it).  Check out Sharon Palmer, RD’s Southwestern Black Bean Quinoa Salad (pictured here from her upcoming book called The Plant-Powered Diet).
  • You can reduce calories further by limiting fat content. Going fat-free is not necessary to make a difference.  You can use reduced-fat dressing or mayonnaise, change the proportions of oil and vinegar in a homemade dressing, or simply try it with a little less dressing altogether.  Barbara Rolls, PhD, includes a recipe for Lemony New Potato Salad in her recently released The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet that replaces mayonnaise with an easy dressing of lemon juice-Dijon mustard dressing made with just a little oil.

Celebrate Vegetables and Fruits

When you plan your picnic or barbecue meal, how many different vegetable and fruit dishes are there compared to the starchy dishes like potatoes, breads, rice and pasta?  Grain products are nutritious, especially if they’re whole grain, but many picnics are overly laden with starchy foods and low on fruits and vegetables.

  • Add trays of raw fruit or vegetables, and experiment with different vegetable salads for variety and good nutrition.  Think outside the box and try some combinations that will make the salads the highlight of the meal (and not because you’ve loaded them with cheese and bacon). The Volumetrics-based cookbook noted above includes a salad made of broccoli, chickpeas, red bell pepper in a dressing based on plain yogurt and reduced-fat feta cheese that I can’t wait to try.
  • If you like to grill, load the grill with vegetables to bring out great flavor.  If you make kabobs, shift the proportions to more vegetables and less meat or chicken.  Make a few extra all-vegetable kabobs;  I guarantee they’ll be so good, everyone will be asking for more vegetables.
  • Grilled fruit is another fabulous treat.  I especially love grilled peaches and pineapple.  This can be a terrific accompaniment to fish or chicken, and is also a simple but luscious dessert.

Check the Extras

Gelatin dishes are a picnic standard in some families.  They generally supply 80 calories in a small half-cup serving, almost all of it sugar.  If you want a sweet, fruit-flavored dish, serve fruit.  Depending on what you choose, the calorie load will be the same or lower, and you’ll be getting fiber, vitamins and more protective phytochemicals.  Serve one fruit plain or combine several favorites and pour a little juice over them to make a fruit salad.

What’s on the grill?

Thinking lean is a smart move, but go beyond that. For lower colon cancer risk, limit red meat to no more than 18 ounces a week, and minimize processed meats like sausage and hot dogs. Step further than turkey hot dogs and lean burgers.  Grilled chicken and turkey change character with different marinades, and fish is great on the grill. Or skip the grill and enjoy some delectable bean-based salads for protein.

  • Grilling’s intense heat reacts with any animal protein, producing compounds called HCAs that can create cell damage that can lead to cancer.  Studies show lower temperatures make a difference. It only adds about two minutes to the cooking time, but ends up producing substantially lower HCA content.
  • Marinating and flipping frequently also reduce the risk grilling poses due to HCA formation.
  • Balance the meal.  People don’t need two burgers or two chicken breast halves.  Switch the proportion of foods in the meal so salads and vegetables are the delicious focus.

What’s a picnic without dessert? 

Healthy eating can include some foods that don’t supply much nutrition.  But pie with ice cream and whipped cream is three desserts posing as one.  Instead, have a dish of fruit with ice cream or whipped cream, or choose plain pie with just a dollop of whipped cream.  A standard serving for brownies, a picnic staple, is a two-inch square, which supplies 100 to 150 calories.  Cut a pan of brownies into portions this size.  Let those who want more take two.  Save those who are watching their calories from trying to stop halfway through one that is too large.

Bottom line: Take yourself off automatic pilot for picnics and barbecues this year.  Shake things up and truly celebrate summer’s bounty!

Let’s talk:  What do you serve to make barbecues and picnics both healthful and delicious?  Please comment below so we can share ideas and support each other in creating healthy lifestyles.


Sharon Palmer, RD. The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today.  The Experiment. 2012. (Coming soon)

Mary Lynn Farivari, RD. Healthy Palate, Delicious and Simple Recipes to Enhance Meals with Fruits and Vegetables. Chevy Chase, MD: Parsley Publishing. 2010.

Barbara Rolls, PhD, with Mindy Hermann, RD. The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 2012.

Cooking Light magazine and its website always inspire me.  Here’s a link to free recipes gathered together that are geared to summer eating.


Full Disclosure: Barbara Rolls sent me a free copy of the Ultimate Volumetrics Diet since she knows I am a long-time fan of the Volumetrics approach to reducing calories and improving nutrition by adjusting ingredient proportions.  However, I was not paid or asked to review or recommend the book. Likewise, neither Mary Lynn Farivari, RD, nor Sharon Palmer, RD, asked or paid me to mention their recipes and books.

6 Responses to The Irony of the Summer Barbecue

  • Great ideas Karen. I love getting together and grilling this time of year. My brother hosted a grillout the other day – he is an amazing chef. And for dessert he grilled pear and peach quarters. He then grilled them right on the grill and served them on a silver platter with small cubes of pound cake (could use angel food cake) and topped with caramelized slivered almonds. It was heavenly. The fruit had caramelized on their own from the grilling.

    • Karen says:

      Grilled fruit is such a treat! Does anyone have other favorite choices to grill besides the peaches, pears and pineapple that Teresa and I have noted? So delicious and impressive, nobody realizes how simple it is to make.

  • Mary Lynn Farivari says:

    Thanks for a reminder that you can go to BBQs and picnics and you don’t have to sabtoge your weight. Instead bring fruit to grill and a healthy side dish. The fun part is showing your family and friends how delicious healthy can taste.

    • Karen says:

      So true! And sometimes changes in side dishes are the changes that meet least resistance, right? And having plenty of healthy side dishes with which to satisfy hunger can make a real difference in the calorie impact of the meal overall.

  • Sita Nath says:

    Karen, Thanks for this idea for a presentation to the community. It was received very well. I showed the audience a typical barbecue spread and how with some adjustments to the menu we can make it a healthy spread. Grilled fruits are a great idea- fruit kabobs for dessert is yummy. Our chef cooked a whole grain salad, changed up the potato salad to a healthier version by leaving the skin on, adding purple spinach, fennel seeds, roasted/grilled red and yellow pepper with EVOO and sherry vinegar dressing, for dessert she made almond laced cookie cup filled with berries and grilled orange slice on top. Thanks again. Please keep blogging.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Sita, for sharing how you used the information from my previous Smart Bytes® post on making summer barbecues an occasion for food that’s both delicious and healthful. It sounds like you provided some great examples of that in your presentation. I don’t think I’ve ever had grilled orange slices — now you’ve given me something new to try! I’m glad that you find the Smart Bytes® blog helpful and I certainly appreciate your encouraging feedback. I do plan to keep blogging; I hope you will continue to come back and add your comments, and that you’ll encourage colleagues and patients to do the same.
      All best,

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