Planning a Healthy Backyard Barbecue

Posted at 2:10 PM on Jul 2, 2024

Northwest Family Clinics - Healthy Backyard Barbecue

Summer is the perfect time to enjoy the great outdoors, and what better way to do that than with a backyard barbecue? As a group of family doctors, we want to share some tips on how to plan a healthy and safe barbecue that everyone can enjoy. Let us dive into healthy switches, meat grilling safety and tasty side dishes sure to please a crowd.

Planning a Healthy Backyard Barbecue

When we think of backyard barbecues, many of us undoubtedly think of cracking an ice cold beer as we scarf down mom’s potato salad, with a hot dog dripping in ketchup and topping it all off with an ice cream cone that may melt quicker than we can eat it. While this all sounds great, there are ways to make these barbecues a little more health-friendly and packed with nutrients that our bodies need.

Healthy Switches

A few simple switches can turn your backyard barbecue into an enjoyable healthy meal that will satisfy everyone’s craving while fueling our bodies properly. Here are few switches to consider:

Hot Dogs and Burgers

Make the swap for lean proteins, like chicken breasts, turkey burgers, or fish. These are lower in saturated fats, generally less processed and still pack a protein punch. Can’t give up the red meat? Consider a 6 oz steak instead which is less processed than a traditional burger or hot dog and will satisfy your meat cravings. Remember, red meat should be enjoyed in moderation, no more than three portions per week or about 18 oz per week. 

Pro tip: to feel even more satisfied be sure to pile your turkey burger or chicken breast up with grilled veggies, tomatoes, or lettuce. Think grilled onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, etc. You can pile the veggies so high that you may be unsure what even lays beneath them, yum!

Regular Buns

Instead of reaching for the traditional white buns, go for a whole grain option or a lettuce wrap. Whole grain options are a great alternative to enjoy the grilling classics without feeling like you are sacrificing anything. These options include more fiber leaving you feeling fuller. Not afraid to make a big switch? Opt instead for a lettuce wrap which will cut down on the carbs and up the nutrient factor. Oh, and did we mention lettuce wraps are delicious? That crunch!


You can still enjoy this tasty side dish, but choose a vinegar based dressing rather than a creamy base. This can help cut the fat and extra calories that this side dish can have when it’s made with creamy dressings.


Chips and a burger are a match made in heaven; however, there are alternatives like going for veggie sticks dipped in hummus. Chips tend to be “empty” calories loaded with fat and even sugar. Fill up instead on dense veggies that will actually make you feel full and provide the nutrients your body needs.

Must Have Side Dishes

No barbecue is complete without a plethora of side dishes to choose from. Checkout some of our favorite healthy options below.

Leafy Green Salads

While this can be a side dish, remember that a leafy green salad can also be the star of the meal. Opting for a bowl of leafy greens topped with veggies and a grilled piece of fish or chicken breast. Remember to check the nutrition label on your salad dressing, these can include high amounts of sugar and fat. A good alternative is to make a quick and easy homemade dressing like this balsamic vinaigrette below.


  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard.

Slowly add the olive oil while continuing to whisk until the dressing is well combined and emulsified. If using, add the minced garlic and mix well. nSeason with salt and pepper to taste.

Vegetable Skewers

Load up skewers with a variety of colorful vegetables like bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes. These are not only nutritious but also add vibrant color to your grill. Here are some tips to grill vegetable skewers like a pro: 

  • Opt for vegetables that hold up well on the grill, such as bell peppers, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, red onions, mushrooms, and eggplant.
  • Cut the vegetables into uniform pieces to ensure even cooking. Pieces should be large enough to stay on the skewer but small enough to cook through.
  • If using wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling to prevent them from burning.
  • Marinate the vegetables for at least 30 minutes before grilling. Use a marinade with a bit of oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and your favorite herbs and spices.
  • Lightly oil the grill grates to prevent sticking. 
  • Grill the skewers over medium heat. 
  • Turn the skewers frequently to ensure all sides get evenly charred and cooked.
  • Vegetables cook quickly, so keep a close eye on them to prevent overcooking. Generally, they take about 10-15 minutes.
  • Sprinkle fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, or basil over the skewers after grilling for added flavor and freshness.
  • Serve the vegetable skewers with a delicious dip like tzatziki, hummus, or a yogurt-based dressing to complement their flavors.

Grilled Fruits

Try grilling fruits like pineapple, peaches, or watermelon. They caramelize beautifully on the grill and make for a healthy, sweet treat. Here are some tips to grilling fruit to perfection:

  • Firm fruits that hold their shape are best for grilling. Good options include pineapples, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, pears, and watermelon.
  • Slice the fruit into uniform pieces to ensure even cooking. Large slices or chunks are easier to manage on the grill.
  • For fruits like peaches, nectarines, and plums, leave the skin on to help hold the fruit together and make flipping easier.
  • Make sure the grill is preheated to medium heat. This helps to caramelize the sugars in the fruit without burning them.
  • Place the fruit cut side down on the grill to get nice grill marks. This also helps to caramelize the natural sugars.
  • Fruits grill quickly, usually within 2-4 minutes per side. Watch closely to prevent them from becoming too soft or burning.
  • Use tongs or a spatula to gently turn the fruit. Be careful not to squash or break the pieces.
  • Serve the grilled fruit warm for the best flavor. It pairs well with yogurt or as a topping for salads.
  • Try adding fresh herbs like mint or basil, or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, to the fruit after grilling for an extra flavor boost.

Nutrient Dense Salads

While potato salad may be the go-to barbecue side dish there are many other options to consider that include whole grains, plant-based proteins, and many more nutrients. A few of our favorites include:

Northwest Family Clinics - Barbecue Tips

Alternatives to Alcohol

While a cold beer or cocktail might be traditional barbecue fare, there are plenty of tasty and healthier alternatives, such as:

  • Infused water, by adding slices of cucumber, lemon, mint, or berries to water for a refreshing and flavorful drink.
  • Sparkling water, they provide a fizzy alternative without the added sugar or alcohol.
  • Brew some herbal teas and serve them iced. Options like mint, chamomile, or hibiscus can be very refreshing.
  • Mocktails, get creative with non-alcoholic versions of your favorite cocktails. For instance, a virgin mojito made with lime, mint, and soda water can be a hit. You can find some of our favorite mocktails here.

Safe Grilling Tips

Grilling can be a delicious way to cook, but it’s important to do it safely to avoid foodborne illnesses. Here are some tips:

  • Ensure your grill is hot enough to kill any bacteria before you start cooking. Aim for a temperature of at least 400°F.
  • Cook meat thoroughly and use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of your meat. Chicken should reach 165°F, burgers and sausages 160°F, and steaks at least 145°F.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using separate plates and utensils for raw and cooked meat. Wash your hands frequently and sanitize surfaces that come into contact with raw meat.
  • If you’re marinating meat, do so in the refrigerator, not on the countertop. Discard any leftover marinade that has been in contact with raw meat.

Happy Grilling

Remember we can enjoy those classic barbecue foods in moderation, but if you can make some simple switches to make your meals more nutrient dense your body will thank you. Happy grilling!