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7 Tips for a Guilt-Free BBQ

Few things are better on a hot summer day than a barbecue, as synonymous with sun and fun as swimming pools and ice cream cones. Unfortunately, hot dog and hamburger season coincides with bathing suit season, and while a calendar full of feasts adds fun to our social lives, it can end up adding a few numbers to the scale as well. This is not to say that we should avoid barbecues for fear of gaining weight. As far as I’m concerned, a summer lacking Tofurky sausages and icy, carbonated beverages is no summer at all. However, there are plenty of ways to satisfy our savory and sweet teeth without splurging—it’s simply a matter of making the right choices and substituting healthier recipes when we can.

Make Friends With the Vegetable Tray

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At barbecues, there’s usually a tray of bite-sized vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and celery perfect for snacking. They’re just overshadowed by the bowl of tortilla chips next to them. Fill up your plate with these crunchy goodies, but go easy on the ranch or sour cream dips usually accompanying them. Instead, opt for hummus, a yogurt-based dip, or low-fat versions of your favorites, like a healthier version of artichoke dip.

Know that All Salads Aren't Created Equal

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The word salad shouldn’t automatically put a halo on certain foods, particularly if they involve copious amounts of mayonnaise, as most potato and pasta salads do. However, there are easy ways to make these sides less calorically dense, either by substituting yogurt for the mayo or by using a recipe that uses olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fats (the good kind).

Adding beans to green salads, like a summer salad with garbanzos or a white bean salad, or using fresh and flavorful ingredients like papaya and red onion, are also a good way to make them more filling and satisfying minus the saturated fat.

Volunteer to Bring a Dish

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This is the easiest way to ensure there’s at least one dish you’ll enjoy and feel good about eating. A quinoa salad is a terrific side dish that blends perfectly with other barbecue fare. Bring a tray of shish-kabobs loaded up with vegetable chunks and lean cuts of meat. You could also create nutritious variations of your favorite appetizers, such as guacamole made with avocado and peas.

Choose Meats Wisely or Go Meat-Free

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Though delicious, ribs and sausages pack a caloric wallop, and when side dishes and a drink or two are factored in as well, suddenly we’ve had a day’s worth of calories and haven’t even had dessert yet. Poultry-based patties and sausages typically have less calories and fat than their beef and pork peers do. Skinless chicken breasts, lean steaks, and tuna or salmon cutlets work, too. And if you can live without meat, there are a variety of veggie burgers and hot dogs on the market; portabella mushroom caps also offer a meat-like consistency sans the animal product.

Speaking of the main attractions at barbecues, it’s important to be aware of what marinades are being used for the meats and meat replacements, since many are made with a lot of salt and sugar. (And if they’re purchased pre-made at a supermarket, chances are they have preservatives and high fructose corn syrup as well.) Try whipping up a simple marinade of olive oil, herbs, and spices or read the ingredient labels.

Skip the Empty Carbs, But Don't Skimp on the Good Ones

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The burger and hot dog buns found next to the grill are usually made with white flour, rendering them fiber-less and generally tasteless. Go for whole wheat or whole grain varieties, which are a little harder to find but worth the effort for an extra boost of good carbs.

Say 'No' to Desserts and Drinks that Weigh You Down

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No one’s denying the deliciousness of sugary treats like cookies and ice cream, but the problem with eating these things on hot days is that they tend to make us feel sluggish and dehydrated. Freezing fruit like grapes or blueberries creates a refreshing treat that also boasts an impressive amount of vitamins and antioxidants. Watermelon, a summertime staple, is mostly made of water, so it’ll keep thirst at bay and squelch a sweets craving. Add it to a fruit cocktail or use it to make homemade popsicles.

If the demand for ice cream just can’t be overcome, get inventive and make your own. It takes a little more work, but imagine how fresh it’ll taste—and you can customize it to your liking (and miss out on a bunch of artificial ingredients while you’re at it).

I’m a big believer in the necessity of a cool drink at a hot barbecue. However, glass after glass of liquor or beer, though delicious, can add up quickly. Luckily, there are plenty of light beers and calorie-conscious cocktails out there. If a non-alcoholic beverage is more up your alley, try an invigorating cup of iced tea.

Eat What You Want—Just Work it Off Later!

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Sometimes we just have to let loose and eat what we feel like. There’s nothing wrong with dietary indulgence here and there, especially if it’s followed up with a game of kickball, ultimate Frisbee, or football. Even a rousing game of Twister can burn off a surprising amount of calories if played right.

It’s easy to have fun at a barbecue without it turning into a calorie fest or a day of deprivation. Even when the lure of chips and dip are too strong to resist, just using a plate instead of grazing at the table is a way to exercise portion control. Remembering simple rules like these at the next grilling session will guarantee a good, guilt-free time. And if you can’t remember all of them, at least make a mental note about Twister.

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