When you’re trying to eat healthy, a cookout can feel like a big challenge to stick with the plan despite temptations or a set-up for an automatic cheat day.
A helpful reminder: “Summer cookouts don’t reflect everyday eating patterns and should be a time of enjoyment,” says Lexi Endicott, a registered dietitian with To Taste. But, “any move to lighten up your plate — especially when you don’t have to sacrifice flavor — is a win.”
Instead of stressing out over your food choices, swap a few heavy sides like mayo-based slaw and sugary baked beans for flavorful homemade picks. This way, you can thoroughly enjoy yourself and impress family and friends with your culinary chops.
Here are 10 quick and healthy sides registered dietitians rave about.
“The best way to add both flavor and nutrients to your cookout spread is by making up a big salad with your favorite seasonal produce,” says Pam Fullenweider, RD, and founder of Fully Mediterranean, a recipe and lifestyle site dedicated to the Mediterranean diet. This beautiful chopped summer Salad fits the bill with juicy strawberries, creamy avocado, sweet corn, crunchy asparagus, and fresh basil with a simple lemon vinaigrette and feta cheese. Pro tip: For fresh, nutrient-rich picks, buy produce from a local farmers market.
What is barbecue without a colorful, zingy slaw to go with it? Rich in Vitamin C to protect your skin and fiber to fill you up, this Kale and Cabbage Slaw with Maple Dijon Vinaigrette makes for a great summer side or sandwich topper, says Amanda Li, RD. Whip it together and then let it marinade a few hours so you can enjoy the party, too, she says.
This watermelon feta mint salad is filled with hydrating foods that contain health-promoting vitamins A and C plus antioxidants like lycopene and beta carotene, which could reduce your risk of chronic diseases by protecting your body from unstable molecules called free radicals. “It’s always my go-to for a last-minute side because it’s so easy to make when you already have watermelon cut up,” says Kaleigh McMordie, RD, a food and nutrition blogger at Lively Table. Substitute goat cheese for feta for a stronger taste or add thinly-sliced red onion for some extra spice, she suggests.
Spice things up with a summery twist on traditional hummus. “Cilantro jalapeno hummus is made from chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, cilantro, jalapeño and fresh garlic — that’s it,” says Endicott. “All of these ingredients contain nutrients that promote heart, gut and immune health.” Serve it with veggies, whole-grain crackers or whole-wheat pita wedges.
Prefer to plan ahead? “This salad tastes better when made a day in advance,” says Tina Marinaccio, an integrative culinary registered dietitian. A vibrant homage to the Mediterranean diet, it includes a handful of anti-inflammatory whole foods including mixed peppers, tomatoes, olives, white beans, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil and fresh parsley.
“This jicama slaw is a great make-ahead dish so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your guests,” says Marinaccio. If you’re new to it, jicama (pronounced hih-kuh-muh) is a sweet, crunchy, fiber-rich root vegetable that tastes like apple. You can find the freshest ones in Latino and Asian supermarkets, she says. Paired with bright, antioxidant-packed carrots, it’s a vegan and oil-free slaw — the perfect pick to balance out a tray of sauce-slathered barbecue.
Instead of the same-old side salad, try a broccoli walnut salad, suggests Colleen Wysocki-Woods, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of ZEST Nutrition. With just five ingredients, this one’s easy to throw together and packs a nutritional punch. Broccoli and red onion provide satiating fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, while walnuts are rich in plant-based protein and healthy polyunsaturated fats.
Ranch dressing is a staple of many summer cookouts. But most salad dressings are high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat and preservatives, which is why they’re one of many store-bought items you’re better off making at home. Enter: homemade Greek yogurt ranch dressing. With high-protein, low-carb yogurt that serves up calcium and gut-friendly probiotics, it’s a more nutritious dip for celery, carrots and wings. Add 1/2 teaspoon taco seasoning or chili powder for a southwest-style twist or 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or your favorite hot sauce for a spicier dip, says Endicott.
“Potato salad is always a crowd-pleaser, but often packed with mayonnaise or bacon; it’s not always the healthiest side dish on the table,” says Micah Siva, a San Diego-based chef and registered dietitian. For a stylish and healthier alternative, try this edamame avocado potato salad featuring baby potatoes, edamame, cucumbers, creamy avocado and fresh herbs. Loaded up with plant-based nutrients and healthy fats, it beats the mayo-based stuff in taste and nutrition.
“With a healthy dose of anti-inflammatory avocado mixed with fiber-rich veggies and sweetened with delicious corn, this side is a surefire win for your next cookout,” says Lisa Moskovitz, a New York City-based registered dietitian. For the summer avocado corn salad, all you need to pick up from the produce aisle is one avocado, a container of cherry tomatoes, two ears of corn, and a small bunch of fresh parsley.
Summer cookouts are meant to be a time for relaxation, fun and delicious foods you love. “There’s no need to stress over your food choices, especially when you volunteer to bring one or a few balanced sides of your own,” says Moskovitz. When you hit the buffet, follow this simple plate method with one protein like a burger, a whole-grain bun or starchy vegetable, plus a load of fruits and vegetables, and you’re good to go.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.