baba ghanoush in a bowl

Healthy Dips to Bring to Your Picnic

May 15, 2024

With summer barbecues and picnics just around the corner, we sat down with Jamie Leskowitz, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Metabolic and Weight Control Center at Columbia to learn about dips, their nutritional value, and the different ways they can promote health.

Here’s what she had to say.

To get started, could you name for us some dips that our readers are likely to encounter or serve this summer?

The universe of dips and spreads is extensive, as it draws from numerous cultures and traditions. Here are a few common examples: guacamole, salsa, hummus, baba ghanoush, tzatziki, smoked fish, French onion, and spinach artichoke.

When choosing, making, or serving a dip, what general nutrition principles should we keep in mind?

Dips are crowd-pleasers because they are tasty, fun, and easy to munch on. That said, they are easy to overeat, and thus, calories can add up quickly. Depending on the ingredients, dips can provide many healthful nutrients; but many are high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

One way to improve your dip’s health profile is to reduce or find substitutes for saturated fat. Saturated fat, found in full-fat dairy foods such as cheese and sour cream, should be limited for overall heart health. Creamy dips are typically higher in calories, as well, but swapping for lower-fat alternatives can help reduce the total calories.

Luckily, many dip recipes now feature yogurt, or sometimes Greek yogurt. (Greek yogurt is more thoroughly strained and is therefore denser than conventional yogurt.) With a little trial and error, you can find a low-fat yogurt that produces the consistency and taste you enjoy. By using a low-fat yogurt, you’ll not only decrease the calories and saturated fat, but you’ll add protein to the dip, making it more satiating.

Another way to improve your dip’s health profile is to reduce or find a substitute for sodium. Unfortunately, sodium is hidden in many foods we eat because it enhances flavor and can act as a preservative. Although we need some sodium in our diets, too much is detrimental to heart health and blood pressure.

Get to know salt-free seasonings, such as ground black pepper, garlic, dill, and cilantro. These herbs and spices are great alone or in various combinations. In addition, you can always brighten the flavors of your dip with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime.

I’d like to make one additional general point. In my work with patients, we talk a lot about eating mindfully. What that means, and I think this could be helpful for everyone, is to pay attention to what you’re eating (or serving). Slowing down, focusing on your food, and getting joy from that food are all important parts of mindful eating.

In many situations, such as BBQs, picnics, and parties, dips are part of a preliminary course that is meant to be informal, social, and nibble-friendly. While mingling with friends and lingering by the appetizers, it’s easy to mindlessly overeat. I suggest making a small plate with smaller portions of the dips you want to try (and, of course, tons of veggies for dipping) and then socializing in a separate area. That way, you limit your exposure to the dips and you save room for the main meal.

Let’s take a deeper dive into dips and their nutritional value. Might any of them surprise our readers with their nutritional ‘punch’?

Definitely! Let me highlight five dips/spreads and their nutrient profiles:

Baba Ghanoush: The main ingredient in baba ghanoush is eggplant. The smokey flavor of eggplant, so distinctive, can be achieved by simply baking it in the oven. A quarter cup of eggplant delivers a variety of vitamins and minerals. Just be sure to make or choose a baba ghanoush that is made with unsaturated fat, such as olive oil or tahini.

Guacamole: The main ingredient in guacamole is avocado. I love avocado -- the texture, the color, the mild flavor; everything about it! A quarter cup of avocado delivers around 7.5 grams of healthy fat, 3.4 grams of fiber, and several vitamins and minerals. The fiber in guacamole is filling and beneficial for heart health, too. Like other dips, though, fat (even healthy fat) and calories can add up quickly, so be mindful of your total portion.

Hummus: The main ingredient in hummus is chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Chickpeas are quite nutritious; a quarter cup of chickpeas delivers 3.6 grams of protein, 3.2 grams of fiber, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Other typical ingredients in hummus include olive oil and tahini, both of which are healthy fats. Thus, hummus is healthful, but it’s also easy to overeat and unknowingly consume too many calories prior to the main meal.

Pico de Gallo: Pico de gallo is a flavorful, refreshing, low-calorie dip typically made with tomatoes, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. Load up on pico de gallo, as it’s delicious and full of nutrients. However, be mindful of the amount of salt that went into the recipe.

Tzatziki: The main ingredient in tzatziki is Greek yogurt. A quarter cup of low-fat Greek yogurt delivers a whopping 5.7 grams of protein. That’s almost as much protein as in a large egg. Greek yogurt is also a great source of calcium and probiotics. This is the perfect dip for cucumbers!

Do you have a favorite healthy dip? Is there a dip you’re careful to avoid?

I have two favorites because they are both super tasty and nutritious - lower-fat, lower-calorie spinach artichoke dip and black bean dip. They both pack in flavor and contain protein and fiber, two important nutrients that, among other things, help us feel full. I make my spinach artichoke dip with Greek yogurt, veggies, and low-fat cheese and my bean dip with beans, olive oil, and spices. Both are simple, delicious, and I promise, you won’t be sacrificing any taste.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend limiting creamy or cheesy dips. At the same time, I’m a believer in eating foods you love (to avoid feeling deprived) and eating foods that are part of your culture. If French onion dip is your favorite, try one that uses a lower-fat sour cream, or, alternatively, enjoy it in a small portion. A great way to pack more nutrients in and help increase satiety is to enjoy these dips with lots of non-starchy vegetables (low in calories, full of nutrients, very filling) or whole grain, high-fiber crackers.

Could you share a favorite healthy dip recipe?

I mentioned black bean dip. Live Eat Learn has a delicious recipe, which I modified a bit.


  • 1 15-oz can unsalted black beans
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp low-fat sour cream
  • 1 clove garlic (minced)
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika
  • ¼ tsp each cumin, ground coriander, chili powder
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)


Blend the above ingredients in a food processor. Add just a pinch of salt and ground black pepper last, to taste. Serve and enjoy!


Jamie Leskowitz, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Metabolic and Weight Control Center at Columbia.