Food spread out on a picnic tablecloth during a summer cookout.

What a Nutritionist Eats at a Summer Cookout

June 6, 2024

When dietitian Jamie Leskowitz, MS, RD, goes to a summer cookout or picnic, she doesn’t obsess over “good” versus “bad” foods.

“When I’m at a barbeque with family and friends, I’m thinking about enjoying the food, but also eating in a way that aligns with my health goals and will help me feel my best afterward,” says Leskowitz, a certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Metabolic and Weight Control Center at Columbia. “I tell my patients to be mindful about that balance between eating for pleasure and eating for nourishment.”

Whether you’re attending a cookout or hosting your own, Leskowitz shares tips for what to eat, what to serve, and how to enjoy eating well.

How to Plan Your Plate

When you show up at a barbeque, you typically find plenty of foods that are delicious but offer little nutritional value.

“Often, the dishes aren’t in your control, so you’re choosing from hotdogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, and chips. Just do your best in that situation,” says Leskowitz. “Scan the spread for any lean protein, healthy carbs, and veggies.”

Here’s how she advises approaching a cookout food table:

  • Don’t show up starving: Before arriving, follow your typical meals and eating pattern so you don’t inhale whatever is on the buffet table.
  • Use the “healthy plate” method: Ideally, a well-balanced plate is ¼ lean protein (like skinless, baked chicken or fish), ¼ high-fiber carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes or whole grains), and ½ non-starchy vegetables (like leafy greens or roasted cauliflower). If a cookout offers the usual burgers and mayo-based sides, do your best to fit those foods into a healthy plate. For example, choose a burger wrapped in lettuce, without a bun, or just half the bun (because you want to limit refined carbohydrates). For high-fiber carbs, look for quinoa, whole wheat pasta, or roasted squash. And fill up on non-starchy vegetables like kebabs or a leafy salad, which Leskowitz calls “unlimited free foods” that are low in calories and high in nutrients.
  • Move away from the buffet: It’s easy to linger by the food table and graze while you chat—but those mindless calories add up. Leskowitz suggests building a plate then heading elsewhere to socialize.
  • Limit the “empty calories” … but a treat is okay: Chips, pretzels, white buns, mayo-based condiments, and fried foods are “empty calories” that provide little nutrition and don’t fill you up long-term. But a small portion is okay, says Leskowitz. “If potato salad is something you love at a barbeque, put a ½ cup on your plate, eat it slowly, and enjoy.”
  • Don’t skip dessert: “I love dessert,” says Leskowitz, who uses an approach of mindful indulgence. Enjoy a small piece of cake with fruit on the side. Or choose more fruit with a light mouse or meringue. “It comes down to portion control and giving yourself permission to indulge without getting out of hand.”

How to Set Your Spread

When hosting your own cookout, provide your guests with healthy options that pack plenty of flavor.

“If you picture your buffet table, you want to see lean proteins, nutritious veggies, and whole grains, so your guests can build a healthy plate,” says Leskowitz. “There are nutritious and yummy options that won’t make people think, ‘Ugh, these are diet foods.’”

In addition, prepare your foods healthfully, like roasting potatoes rather than deep frying them.

Here are the food groups Leskowitz advises focusing on:

  • Lean proteins: Choose meats that say they are 93 percent lean or above, such as ground turkey, bison, or a salmon burger. You could also offer plant-based proteins like grilled tofu, or soy or veggie burgers.
  • High-fiber carbohydrates: Carbs get a bad rap, but fiber is filling, so it’s helpful for weight management and also important for heart health and colon health. Offer carbs such as summer grain salads, roasted squash or sweet potatoes, bean or lentil salads, or pasta salad made with whole-wheat pasta.
  • Flavorful veggies: Grilling vegetable kebabs or asparagus with olive oil and herbs makes for a healthy and flavorful side. You could also offer a big salad with seasonal produce or a crudité with a nutritious dip.
  • Grilled fruits: Grilling fruit kebabs or pineapple slices are delicious sides or desserts that Leskowitz says can be a surprising element at a BBQ.
  • Refreshing, infused water: Limit alcohol (which impacts overall health and lowers inhibitions, potentially making you eat more) and sugary drinks. Instead, opt for unsweetened iced tea, water, or flavored seltzers. “For a summer picnic, infusing water with fruit, herbs like mint, or cucumber can be refreshing without the added sugar,” says Leskowitz.


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