3 ways to keep cookouts healthy and enjoyable

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

Ahh, Spring ... 

Such a delight to the senses. The feel of warmer weather, the sight of beautiful flowers, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of fresh cut grass, and the taste of grilled food.

Grilling Season!

little boy with healthy grilled foodGrilling can be a delicious way to eat healthy, or a delicious way to eat unhealthy, depending on what you grill and what you serve as sides, of course. As you are probably aware, foods like chicken breast, fish, pork tenderloin, and veggie or black bean burgers offer a great source of protein without excessive calories and saturated fat.

On the other hand, foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, and steak can pack a lot of calories, saturated fat, and sodium.  

The Cookout Dilemma

Opting for healthier meals at home is one thing. Cookouts with friends and family is another. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been to many cookouts featuring salmon, quinoa, and kale. Nope, it’s typically hamburgers and hot dogs.

I love a grilled hamburger as much as the next person. My goal is not to be the healthy food police (although my kids might disagree), nor to advocate hamburgers on a regular basis.

I want to find a nice balance of healthy and enjoyable.

We know that mindless eating and overindulgence isn’t healthy. On the other hand, strict rules and fretting over every ingredient and nutrition fact isn't enjoyable. And when something isn't enjoyable, it’s hard to stick with it.

So how can we incorporate more healthiness into the (perhaps not-so-healthy) things we enjoy?

A Moderate Approach = An Enjoyable Approach

For me, completely restricting unhealthy foods doesn't work. It makes me obsess over the forbidden food, eventually reach a point where I can't take it anymore, and ultimately go back to eating the food (often in larger quantities than before). 

Instead, I'm a fan of good old-fashioned moderation and of improving your ratio of healthier choices. 

asparagus on the grillA great way to do this is by filling up on the healthy stuff (veggies!) first, savoring smaller portions of the less-healthy stuff (without guilt), and quitting before you are stuffed.

1. Filling up on the healthy stuff first

When getting together with family and friends, we almost always have a vegetable tray out before the meal. It's a great way for kids and adults alike to fuel up on nutrient-rich vegetables beforehand.

Another idea is to grill vegetables as an appetizer. Grilled asparagus is a great example. Toss fresh asparagus in some olive oil, place on top of foil on the grill (so the spears don't fall through), add a touch of sea salt and fresh ground pepper, and flip with tongs until evenly cooked and dark green in color. Asparagus is so delicious hot off the grill. Even the kids love it!

2. Savoring smaller portions of the less-healthy stuff

In my family, we don't prepare full-sized hamburgers. We make sliders instead. I've found that one little slider gives the same enjoyment as a larger burger, with far fewer calories, saturated fat, sodium, post-meal sluggishness, and guilt.

Not to mention, they're so cute! :)

slider-size hamburgers for portion controlIf you're not into "cute" food, you can achieve the same thing by not taking a whole portion. Simply opt for half of a hamburger, sausage, steak, etc. instead.

It's important to slow down and enjoy each bite of the smaller portion. The taste buds are in our mouth, not our stomach. :)

3. Quitting before you are stuffed

When we quickly shove food into our bodies, our brain doesn’t have time to signal that we are full until we’ve reached the point of being “stuffed.” Slowing down and savoring each bite not only provides more enjoyment, it also helps us to realize how full we are before we’ve overdone it.

Personally, I like is the 80 percent rule (known as hara hachi bu in Japan), which means you stop eating when you feel 80 percent full. This is a common practice of Okinawans, who are known for being among the healthiest, longest-living people on the planet. This practice, combined with slower eating and savoring your food, are great ways to maximize enjoyment while avoiding overindulgence.

Long-Term Success

Whether at a grocery store, restaurant, or cookout, there will always be unhealthy options enticing us. Our relationship with food is important. 

We can view food as a source of enjoyment and nourishment, or as a source of guilt and stress.

There are countless diets that can yield results. But most are not sustainable. In the end, it's about finding what will work for you in the long run. Personally, I've found that good-old fashioned moderation and improving my ratio of healthier choices is my best bet for long-term success.

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.