Burgers have a reputation for being something you crave, not something that can be a nutritious, filling or weight-loss friendly meal. However, when prepared correctly, a burger can be all of those things!
“Burgers can absolutely be a healthy and nutritious meal—but not all burgers are created equal,” says Ashley Kravitz, RD, CEO and founder of Nutrition Specialists of New Jersey in Freehold, New Jersey. Your choice of bun, burger, topping and condiments can make or break the meal.
Here’s how to build a good-for-you burger from bun to topping so you can create a meal that’s a bun in a million!
AIM FOR WHOLE GRAIN
When shopping at the store, bypass white flour-based buns and opt for whole grain, says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut. She likes Angelic Bakehouse Whole Grain Hamburger Buns because they’re made from sprouted whole grains like red wheat berries, quinoa and millet, and have 5 grams of fiber per bun. (Fiber recommendations, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, range from 22–28 grams per day for women and 28–34 grams per day for men, depending on your age.) A whole-grain bun can also provide an extra dose of protein, especially handy if you are eating a bean-based burger and are looking to sneak in more of the filling, muscle-building nutrient.
Whole-wheat sandwich thins or pitas are another option as a bun for your burger, and it can be a nice choice if you prefer the taste and texture. Know that even though they’re smaller in size, thins may still contain the same (or similar) number of calories and carbs as a bun. If you’re counting either, make sure to check the label first to ensure the choice is in line with your goals.
If you’re looking to go low-carb or simply want to leave room for those sweet potato fries, then a greens-wrapped burger can be your go-to. We love how perfectly sized bib lettuce is for burgers, but if you can’t find that, collard greens work well, too! Gorin also suggests topping a bed of salad greens with your burger if you’re feeling plate-and-fork fancy.
MAKE IT MEAT-Y
Two of Kravitz’s top choices are lean ground turkey or chicken, however, occasionally she ops for lean ground beef. When shopping, look for meat that is 93% lean or higher. “The leanest ground beef I’ve been able to find is 96%,” she says. “I usually recommend consuming red meat no more than once per week,” says Kravitz.
MAKE IT BEAN-Y
Bean and veggie-based burgers can be made from a variety of beans and lentils, like chickpeas, black beans, white beans or a combination. Make these at home (try this Chipotle Black Bean Burger With Avocado Salsa) or look in the frozen section at your grocery store for options. When shopping, Gorin recommends looking for a bean burger that contains at least 5 grams of protein per burger to help you feel full and satiated.
Fatty fish, like salmon, makes great fish-based burgers because it can stay juicy on the grill. Gorin is a big fan of salmon burgers. “Salmon burgers are a wonderful way to get in both protein and heart-healthy EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids,” she says.
TRY PLANT-BASED MEAT
Plant-based burgers, like the Impossible Burger, are popular right now. And for good reason: These mimic the taste, texture and appearance of meat. A 4-ounce patty contains 19 grams of protein, no cholesterol and less fat compared to beef. That said, it contains only slightly less saturated fat, with 8 grams per serving versus a beef burger. Saturated fat intake raises blood cholesterol levels, which can contribute to heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. The organization recommends limiting saturated fat to 5–6% of total calories per day, or 13 grams per day if you are on a 2,000-calorie diet. Bottom line: Even if you are eating a plant-based burger, you’ll still have to keep this limit in mind.
ADD VEGGIES (AND MORE VEGGIES)
Lettuce and tomato are classics, but don’t be afraid to get creative. “A burger is a great opportunity to pile on the veggies,” says Gorin. Caramelized onions, sauerkraut or arugula are great ideas to kick up flavor. Other options to try: Roasted red or poblano pepper, grilled zucchini or eggplant slices, microgreens or sauteed mushrooms.
BOOST GOOD-FOR-YOU FAT
Guacamole or avocado slices provide heart-healthy fats, says Gorin. One-quarter of an avocado supplies about 80 calories, per the USDA. We like to smash our avocado directly onto the bun to make the burger eating a bit less messy.
Hot peppers, pickles and pickled onions bring tang (and maybe even heat) to the burger. When choosing pickles, says Kravitz, go for low-sodium, as pickles can be really high in salt.
Don’t be afraid to get creative when selecting the perfect cheese to accompany your burger. We love sliced cheddar, Swiss, a sprinkle of goat cheese or a smidge of blue cheese to top off our burgers. A 1-ounce slice of cheese adds about 100 calories to your meal. And surprisingly, a 2016 meta-analysis in the journal Nutrients found there’s evidence that including dairy foods, like cheese, in a calorie-restricted diet can improve fat loss while preserving muscle. If you’re looking to lighten things up a bit, look for the thin-sliced cheese found in most grocery stores, you still get all that cheesy flavor, but less calories.
Whether yellow, Dijon, whole grain or spicy mustard tickle your fancy, mustard is sure to add a ton of flavor to your burger. Try mixing and matching the different types of mustards and cheese you use to keep things interesting this summer.
Though it can be high in sodium, a couple of shakes of hot sauce can go a long way to add spice to your meal.
PICO DE GALLO
Made with chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers, this topping can add freshness, and a cool contrast to your burger on a hot summer day.
HUMMUS OR TZATZIKI
Skip the mayo and go for a spread like hummus or tzatziki (a yogurt-based dip made with dill and cucumber). We love these Lentil Burgers With Tzatziki Sauce.
Keep these simple summer tips in mind before you fire up the grill. Whether it’s lightening up your condiments, selecting a whole-grain bun, or loading your burger up with veggies, these simple swaps will have you enjoying healthy, nutrient-dense burgers all season long.