How to Stuff Yourself at a Cookout Without Feeling Terrible the Next Day

People at a BBQ
Paper Boat Creative/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Paper Boat Creative/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Nothing says, "Happy Independence Day, America!" quite like Jeff Goldblum hacking into a spaceship. Oh, also cookouts and barbecues. Those too.

While the smell of grilled meat and the taste of cold beer are as synonymous with the Fourth of July as fireworks, American flag bikinis, and air shows, barbecues aren't all cutoff shorts and rainbows when it comes to your health. They're more likely than not to send you home 10lbs heavier and ready to pass out before all the fun even begins.

And you want to keep the fun going for as long as possible, right? The government is basically telling you to go wild, otherwise it wouldn't have made it a national holiday. Here's how to master the cookout without totally destroying your body.

The sneaky-unhealthy foods

There you are, scooping heaping helpings of what appear to be healthy-ish items to offset the copious amounts of alcohol and meat you'll be consuming throughout the day. All those sides are good for you, right?

Well, not exactly. Here are the seemingly decent choices that may be doing more harm than good.

Macaroni salad
Flickr/Meal Makeover Moms

Mayo-based "salads"

Coleslaw, potato salad, egg salad, macaroni salad -- these should all just be labeled "mayo salad," since that's what the majority of them really are. Just one tablespoon of mayo has 100 calories and 11g of fat -- and you know the mound you want to plop on your plate will certainly have more than one tablespoon of mayo.

The same thinking holds true for fatty salad dressings such as blue cheese, ranch, or Thousand Island, which can quickly turn a healthy salad into a nutritional wasteland.

Baked beans

Sure, beans on their own are essential for your health and farts, but once these humble legumes get the "baked" touch, they tend to become sugar bombs. Canned versions are typically smothered with high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars, which sort of ruins the point of eating beans for their health benefits.

BBQ sauce and ketchup

Alas, these BBQ staples can be enjoyed in moderation as long as you know what you're getting into. Just a few tablespoons of these condiments can quickly add up to your recommended daily allowance of sugar.

Chips and dip

Chips and dip

Sure, those salty chips and that cheesy dip make for an impossible-to-resist combo, but indulging in this snack can wind up making you eat even more, especially because that pleasure point of salt and fat is damn nearaddictive. Read: they'll totally zap your self-control, and when mixed with alcohol, it can lead you to dumping the crumbs of a chip bag directly into your mouth while fireworks burst in the background.  

What you should be filling up on instead

Since you'll have to fill up your plate with something to avoid the hot shame of being the weirdo standing in the corner alone with 10 baby carrots on your plate.

Grilled Chicken
Flickr/Alby Headrick

Grilled chicken, instead of cheeseburgers and hot dogs

Look, you already know that cheeseburgers and hot dogs have no claims as health foods… nor should they! It's that kind of diversity that makes America great.

But if those choices are too heavy, and you still want that grilled meat flavor, go for chicken. Half a chicken breast is only 142 calories, and packs an incredible 28g of protein to keep you energized from afternoon until the fireworks finale. Cheeseburgers and hot dogs may be American staples, but with all the fat, condiments, and what's probably a bun filled with sugar and simple carbs, they're not doing your blood sugar levels any favors. And that's without even talking about what's inside of hot dogs.

Salad, with a caveat

Again, stay away from the creamy dressings and reach for olive oil with a squirt of lemon or another vinegar of your choice. It may sound plain, but it's actually packed with fresh flavor that will help you start filling up with healthier choices early, so whatever damage you do later won't feel quite so transgressive.

Grilled vegetables

Grilled veggies, instead of chips and dip

If your BBQ has kabobs, there's a good chance grilled veggies are on the menu. Your job is to find said veggies and fill your plate with as many as you can. This healthy stuff is easy, with the salad and grilled veggies you've been downing!

You know what other classic American food would work here? Corn on the cob -- try to go easy on the butter, but otherwise it's a fiber-rich option that's good for your gut.

Vinegar-based alternative salads

By swapping in vinegar and olive oil for mayo, you'll cut the calories and fat of your coleslaw, potato salad, or pasta salad, without sacrificing flavor. The bonus is that these will hold up way better in the heat than mayo-based salads; there's nothing grosser than diving into that watery, creamy coleslaw or pasta salad that's been on the picnic table for hours.

It's easy to find vinegar-based recipes like coleslaw alternatives and healthier pasta salads, but as a simple example, a few splashes of apple cider vinegar, some olive oil, and a few caraway seeds will make you forget all about mayo when you're whipping up a batch of coleslaw.

Beer on picnic table
Alex Frane/Thrillist

What should you do about alcohol?

Drink it, if you want! As is true with most of life's pleasures, the key is moderation. And hydration. Although you do want to be more than moderately hydrated most of the time. This is a whole beast unto itself, but if you're worried about the effects of downing thousands of calories in alcohol form, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact on your gut.

Anyway, the most important thing to remember is that eating and social events should be pleasurable experiences, not opportunities to have a panic attack over everything you eat or drink. You have the info to make smart decisions and choose healthier food options to gorge on with gusto.

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Devan Ciccarelli is a writer and marketing specialist who’s out to make barbecues great again! If you want to join her crusade against unhealthy party food, tweet your favorite recipe to her on Twitter: @DevanCiccarelli.