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How to Enjoy Summer Cookout Food While Staying Healthy

A registered dietitian helps you navigate eating well

summer cookout grilling

The good news: It’s cookout season! The bad news? Nothing derails a healthy diet quite like a party.

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Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, dishes on how to indulge in the joy of the season without compromising your health — plus six healthy summer recipes you’ll love.

Eat before you go

Nervous about your ability to pass up bowls of chips and platters of cookies in the heat of the moment? Eat something healthy before heading out the door, which decreases the likelihood that you’ll overindulge.

“If you show up hungry, you’ll have a harder time making good choices, and then you’re likely to end up overeating,” Czerwony says. “The biggest thing is thinking ahead and planning how you’ll stay healthy.”

Bring the healthy food with you

You never know what is (and isn’t) going to be available at someone else’s potluck, so Czerwony suggests bringing a healthy contribution you know you can rely on — something to help you steer clear of the potato salad and the homemade cookies.

Whether you’re the host or you’re looking for a dish to bring along to someone else’s event, consider these healthy summer recipes that are totally cookout-friendly:

Want to keep it even simpler? No need to whip up something fancy: “I like to bring a vegetable platter with dip because then at least I know that those are safe options,” Czerwony says.

Set your strategy

Before you hit up the food table, take some time to think through your approach and come up with a game plan for how you’ll fill your plate.

“If you can stand back and look at what’s being offered, you’re likely to make better choices,” Czerwony says. “You’re can figure out which foods you don’t really care about and what you really want to eat.”

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And you don’t have to skip the unhealthy foods you love. Just prioritize the ones you want most, portioning them out and balancing them with healthier options.

Make your main course count

When it comes to entrees, your healthiest option is lean, center cuts of meat, like loins and rounds. Steer clear of marbled meat, which indicates a higher fat content — but if the only cut available is fatty or heavy, try to decrease your portion size and increase the volume of your healthy sides.

Chicken can be healthy if it’s grilled, not fried; fish, seafood, and plant-based protein are good options, too.

Eat a rainbow of sides

Take it easy on the mayo-heavy “salads” that are so popular at picnics (think egg- and potato-based) and instead go for the green stuff, like crunchy, flavorful salads featuring nature’s bounty.

“The foods that are healthiest this time of year are the same ones you find in your garden,” Czerwony says. Here are her top picks for summer fruits and vegetables:

  • Berries: Eat the rainbow! Strawberries, blackberries and blueberries are low in sugar and high in fiber.
  • Watermelon: The quintessential summer fruit, watermelon is full of water and fiber, which means it’s hydrating and filling.
  • Cucumbers: The little green guys are full of water and fiber, but with minimal calories.
  • Zucchini and summer squash: These garden staples are high in fiber, and “zoodles” (veggies served in the style of noodles) make for a light, healthy summer side.

Still have room for seconds? It’s OK to go back for more. Just try focus your repeat visit on the healthier choices, piling your plate with carrot sticks instead of ruffled chips.

Stick to water

Hot weather can be dehydrating, so maintain your water intake throughout the day — ideally about 64 ounces a day, or four water bottles.

Sodas, juices, sports drinks and alcohol are all calorie-laden and, importantly for summer, they’re also less hydrating than water. Pure water is best, but if you want something hydrating with more pizazz, pop a little bit of that fruit salad into your H20 and infuse it with berries, citrus fruit or even cucumbers.

“That will jazz it up without adding extra sugars or artificial colorings,” Czerwony suggests.

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