A Dietitian's Guide To Lightening Up Your Favorite Summer Cookout Dishes

by Lisa McCune, MS, MPH, RDN, LDN

Last Updated: July 2, 2020

When we think of summertime, cookouts are usually one of the first things that come to mind, and fortunately, this is one activity the COVID-19 pandemic has not put on hold. They might look a little different with family at a distance or just a few friends, but a smaller guest list can mean a great time to try some lighter versions of some of your favorite cookout staples. Hamburgers, potato salad and ice cream are just a few of the traditional dishes typically on the menu at a cookout, but may not be the most nutritious of meals. With a few substitutions we can enjoy the memories from our cookouts for years to come, along with good health. Lighter dishes often get labeled as bland, but healthier doesn’t have to mean less flavor. We’ve put together some simple swaps to try in hopes of adding a new favorite staple dish to your summer menu.


A big, juicy cheeseburger hits the spot at a summer cookout, but can definitely be lightened up. Substitutes can be made for the meat, condiments, cheese, and buns.

Burger Patty:
  • If a beef burger is non-negotiable, try choosing a lower fat cut of beef. Go for 90% lean ground beef or try a new type of burger like turkey, chicken, salmon or bison.
  • To avoid a dry burger, add fresh herbs, bread crumbs or chopped onions or mushrooms to the meat like this Spicy Grilled Turkey Burger.
  • Veggie burgers are also a great, lower calorie option. Portobello mushrooms, black beans and lentils, soy meats, and eggplant all provide a meaty texture that will make you forget about beef. Try this Mushroom Lentil Burger with Spicy Arugula.

Condiments and Cheese:
  • While condiments add texture and flavor to a burger, they also pack a punch with calories, sodium and fat that can add up quickly.
  • Try to stick with one condiment if possible, and limit serving size to 1 Tablespoon.
  • Rather than mayonnaise, try mustard, and if you opt for bbq sauce, steak sauce or another sauce look for reduced, low, or no added salt versions.
  • Avocado is a healthy substitute for creamy mayonnaise or cheese on a burger.
  • If cheese is a must, provolone, mozzarella or swiss cheese are lower sodium and lower fat choices.
  • Using thin sliced cheese also helps lighten the calorie and fat content.

  • When choosing a bun look for thinner breads like English muffins or smaller buns.
  • Whole grain options will give a fiber boost. Look for “whole grain” language on packaging.
  • Skipping the bun and opting for a lettuce wrap is a good way to increase veggies and reduce carbohydrates.

Side Dishes

Most cookout staple side dishes are dressed in creamy, caloric mayonnaise-based sauces. Cole slaw, potato salad, and pasta salad are just a few examples. With a few swaps and additions, these side dish staples can be made lighter and more nutritious.
  • Try swapping the mayonnaise for vinegar-based dressings such as apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar for a lower calorie, but flavorful change.
  • Load up on veggies and try using different ones such as julienned broccoli or jicama for coleslaw. Try this Light and Tangy Coleslaw or this Red Coleslaw.
  • For potato salad, try yogurt as an alternative to a mayonnaise base like this Quick Low Fat Potato Salad, or incorporate mustard like in this Sweet Potato Salad with Double Mustard for a different flavor profile.
  • For pasta salad, try high fiber pasta such as whole wheat, chickpea or lentil pasta or even zucchini noodles for a lower carbohydrate option.
  • Add colorful veggies or fruit to pasta salad for more nutrition and texture.


Some traditional cookout desserts include ice cream, fruit cobbler, and pie. Try subbing these similar, healthier options:
  • Try this Strawberry Frozen Yogurt using Greek yogurt for a refreshing dessert that cools us off without weighing us down.
  • Try substituting avocado for heavy cream and eggs to achieve a mousse base like this Healthy Chocolate Mousse.
  • Try a fruit crisp rather than a fruit cobbler to reduce calories, fat, and carbohydrates. Choose whole grain toppings such as oats, and use spices like ginger to add flavor like in this Apple, Pear and Cherry Crisp with Fresh Ginger. This recipe can be used year-round with seasonal fruit. You can also try making an easy and delicious seasonal fruit salad. It’s refreshing, naturally sweet, and nutritious. Try mixing in fresh herbs to highlight the fresh fruit flavors.

We could all do with less worry in our lives right now. These healthier substitutes can help us enjoy our time with family and friends, and spend less time thinking about the food that we eat this summer. If you’re interested in learning how to lighten up more cookout dishes, schedule a FREE video chat appointment with a Kroger dietitian.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Lisa McCune, MS, MPH, RDN, LDN

Lisa McCune, MS, MPH, RDN, LDN

Teaching people about the positive things that food can do for the mind, body and spirit, and helping them understand that all foods can fit into a healthy diet is Lisa’s nutrition philosophy. She believes food should be exciting and fun! Lisa encourages celebration of non-scale victories, which focus on what good nutrition can do for your life beyond weight. She loves food, but also loves to break a sweat whether it’s cycling, walking her dog or doing CrossFit.