Make These Substitutions for Healthy BBQ That Still Tastes Great

Adam Nixon / Stocksy

The only true wealth in this world is your health and your loved ones. But how to maintain the former without alienating the latter during barbecue season? Nobody wants to come over for grilled veggie shakes and using lettuce in lieu of hamburger buns is sad and wrong. Embrace the classic hallmarks of a cookout, or don’t bother throwing one. Your goal, then, is to savor the true flavor without going deep into sugar and the wrong kinds of fat. Here’s how.


Nobody ever associated the snack table with health, but then, nobody ever forewent the snack table in the name of healthier eating. Here’s how to sensibly let chips and dips cross your lips:

Tortilla chips
Consider using sliced cucumber for scooping up delicious, healthy guacamole instead of chips. If you do stick with corn chips, buy a version free from trans fats, found in partially hydrogenated oils. It’s these, even more than the fried carbs, that are giving you that spare tire. Your body, as the kids used to say, literally cannot even with trans fats.

Or better yet, fry your own chips in saturated fats, which get an unfair rap. While you want to limit your daily intake, saturated fats are healthier for cooking at high heat (exception: palm oil -- don’t use it) thanks to a higher smoke point and less oxidization. A stack of taco tortillas costs next to nothing at the supermarket, and fry up fast and easy -- just quarter them in a stack; two cuts with a chef’s knife and you’re ready to fry. After draining, toss with a light amount of salt and any other seasonings you want. You can halve the amount of sodium even as you use that much more beneficial oil above. So you’re the rad guest who showed up with twice as many chips for a quarter of the price, that are healthier and more delicious? Grand slam.

Note: When shopping for a good saturated fat, pick your lard or coconut oil carefully. Many brands are partially hydrogenated.

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Canned salsa
Don’t stop at the closest gas station on your way to the host’s house and grab a bag of tortilla chips and some soupy red sauce. It only takes five minutes to make it homemade. For a runny salsa, this the work of a few seconds in the food processor, but for best results, dice finely with a chef’s knife or a vegetable chopper into pico de gallo. Mmmmm, chunky goodness with all the health benefits of fresh veggies. Once you’ve had the savory and easy mixture of cilantro, onion, and tomato, you’ll never go back to the syrupy canned stuff again.

Potato chips
Nature’s most perfect root veggie is starchy and delicious. Sadly, you’re still looking at acrylamides no matter how them taters get fried, so if you want to forego the potential carcinogen, drop ’em like hot potatoes and get your crunch from pork rinds.

Yeah, fried animal fat might not sound like a healthier swapperoo, but rinds have almost no acrylamide presence, and are usually fried in their own lard. These pillowy, crispy food stuffs sound like they ought to be the least healthy snack on earth... yet they come out looking pretty good: High in protein, with zero carbs, and cooked in a stable, saturated fat.

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Courtesy of Laura's Lean Beef

Laura’s Lean Beef has the taste you want from a burger without sacrificing flavor. It’s made from cattle raised on a vegetarian diet of grasses and grains -- but never any added hormones or antibiotics. There are no artificial ingredients or fillers used, either. So you can eat well and healthy at the same time.

Ranch dip
The difference between store-bought and homemade buttermilk ranch is hemispheric. Swap unsweetened Greek yogurt for the original half a cup of mayo, and you’ll barely notice, except in a yummy, tangy way. Mix with an equal amount of buttermilk, then some parsley, thyme, garlic, onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Boom! Ya done. Note that the original Hidden Valley recipe used MSG, which is perfectly safe, but if your tastes run otherwise, a dab of fish sauce will give you the same umami of that glutamate goodness. Surround the ranch dip with crudité to replace chips with delicious veggies. The vehicle is unimportant; the cargo is still delicious ranch dressing with fresh chives and two kinds of probiotic.

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Tip: Unless there are veggies that will lose their crispness, make sides the night before. The flavors will mingle in the fridge into something magical. You can add those crisp veggies the day-of.

If you want strong flavors without a bunch of sugar, skip the ketchup or sweet relish, and top with probiotic fermentation like pickles, kimchi, or sauerkraut. Pretty much any kind of mustard will have healthy anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its hearty serving of selenium, but for best effect, ditch the honey mustard (it’s got added sugar) and get a tasty whole grain or stone ground. The texture’s more satisfying anyway.

Chicken’s pretty healthy for you to begin with, so just go organic to forego the hormones and antibiotics. Might as well pick one that’s free-range as long as you’re being savvy. In lieu of processed hot dogs, stuff your bun with beer bratwurst or the fennel delights of an Italian sweet sausage, both of which stick to the basics.  

An easy way to reduce calories in your burger is to choose a leaner grind. Look for atypical burger grinds of 10% fat or less.

And of course, there’s always the veggie option. Sidestep the debate about whether tofu is the healthiest thing ever or the source all moobs, with a southwestern veggie burger: Black bean, corn, red pepper, and quinoa.

Go low-carb while adding protein. Substitute bread buns with homemade chickpea buns. If making those is too much work, your other option is quickly grilled portobello caps. They only have a nominal amount of protein, but are absolutely rippling with niacin, riboflavin, B vitamins, and other micronutrients to fortify your system beyond the trinity of carbs/protein/fat. Mushrooms are rich in pantothenic acid, the form of B vitamin that allows you to turn those macros into energy. Think of it as the spark plug that lets you make good use of fuel. And while neither chickpeas nor mushrooms will taste like bread, both have plenty of chewy substance.

Corn on the cob  
Substitute butter with virgin olive oil (for best effect, use an herbal-infused olive oil) or upgrade the butter to grass-fed stuff like Kerrygold, Colliers, or Plugra. Omega-3s are what heaven tastes like... although their effect on lowering your triglycerides may keep you from the pearly gates a while longer. You’ll recognize these butters by their deep yellow color, thanks to increased levels of beta carotene, which is the health benefit bouquet you want to give to your skin, hair, and eyes to show them you really care. This antioxidant will give you a healthy dose of Vitamin A.

Coleslaw doesn’t have to suck. First off, salt your cabbage in a colander so it lets go of all its water. Let sit overnight in the fridge. Now roast half of it in the oven; when it cools, toss it back in with its crunchier half.

Skip the mayo and make a flavorful mix of whole grain mustard, cider vinegar, and a spoonful of olive oil. While the calories are about the same, the prevalent monounsaturated fat in virgin olive oil is generally considered better for you than the soybean oil found in most commercial mayonnaise -- yes, even brand name “olive oil” varieties are mostly soybean oil. (If you must have mayo, it’s easy and healthy to make your own with olive oil, and the flavor far surpasses that jar from the store.)

The oil’s fat breaks down the plant cells for a tastier crunch, while the vinegar slows sugar absorption into the body. Now you’ve got a tangy slaw people just may put on a burger. Nobody’s leaving that paper cup empty.

Pasta salad
Toss your pasta -- probably rotini, which lives for this kind of thing -- with a healthy pesto rather than mayo. Bonus: The pesto will pair better with any veggies you want to include, but definitely black olives and grilled tomatoes.

Potato salad
Reduce the mayo to a spoonful for flavor, then toss your tots with unsweetened Greek yogurt and chives. It’s so good, you may wonder why you ever added a cup of mayo. You may want to throw an extra dash of pickle brine in there for flavor.

Fruit salad
Fresh fruit is good for you no matter what. Still, some common high-sugar foods in fruit salad -- calling you out, grapes -- can be reduced and/or replaced by kickass berries (seriously, pick any kind) for powerful flavor even as melon offers a nice, mild balance. Watermelon, which has plenty of sugar, has a low glycemic load.  

Truth is, you shouldn’t worry much about this one no matter what. Make a fruit salad. Then throw some fresh herbs in there. Ooh, you’re getting fancy. How about an acid like lemon juice or red wine vinegar? Maybe some finely diced pickled watermelon rind for crunch? Or even healthy fats, like feta cheese or diced avocado? Now that’s the right way to make fruit salad complicated.

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Water is best, but you’re here for the flavor, so...

Soda’s a big ol’ pile of sugar. The obvious go-to is diet sodas, but come on, you know those taste weird. Plop all those fruit scraps you were going to chuck after making fruit salad into a pitcher of water, and leave ‘em in the fridge overnight. Now enjoy your icy, fruit-infused water at the cookout. If you miss the ol’ carbonated fizz, you can mix it with club soda, seltzer, or sparkling water. Just avoid tonic, which is loaded with almost as much sugar as a can of cola no matter how cool it looks under blacklight.

Sweet tea / iced tea
Give your pitcher of nice, chilly tea a touch of zest with some lemon juice. If you’re still craving sweetness, stir in a spoonful of honey -- a little goes a long way. You can add a pinch of salt (yes, really) and a pinch of baking soda (whaaaaat?) to bring up the sweet flavors even more.

Ditto with everyone’s favorite curbside purchase. A 1:6 ratio of lemon juice to water, plus a hint of local honey is all you need to enjoy liquid refreshment. Again, a pinch of salt will emphasize the flavor.

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Surprisingly, these calorie bombs can be made healthier. Making your own homemade marshmallow sounds like a pain, but it’s about as much work as making Jell-O, and they keep for a month without all the weird preservatives. That means you can make all the marshmallows you need for the rest of the summer’s cookouts in one go, for a fresher, fuller flavor at half the sugar and half the calories.

Dark chocolate, lower in fat and sugar and richer in antioxidants, will bloom from bitter to sweet when it connects with your gooey mallows.

Graham crackers might be fresher if you make them yourself, but healthwise they won’t be much different from what you get in the store, so save yourself some baking and buy a box.

Everybody other than Hank Hill knows the virtues of charcoal. But despite its delicious taste and ability to keep the mosquitoes away, smoke isn’t the healthiest way to flavor your food. No need to sacrifice the greatness of a burger, steak, or other, lesser meats! This is why heaven and E.H. Wright gave us liquid smoke. Smoke is flavor, no doubt, but liquid smoke is the same flavor with the carcinogens filtered. No compromising!

Brendan McGinley will happily taste-test all the corrections you tweet to him.