Carefree Cookout

Not-So-Sinful Summer Munchin’

by ANDREA NIKOLAI, UF/IFAS Extension Polk County

Summertime cookouts are a great way to bring people together but can also put your family in a land mine of high fat and high sugar options. Luckily, you can still get the great tastes of sweet, crunchy and savory foods and feel good about you and your family’s health.  

What meat to choose?  

Instead of ground chuck for the hamburgers, which contains 80 percent meat and 20 percent fat (you will see 80/20 on the label), use a leaner cut of meat, such as ground sirloin (90/10), ground round (85/15), ground turkey breast, or chicken breast. 

Is ground turkey always healthier?  

Not necessarily. The answer depends on what goes in the grinder. Ground turkey can have the skin and dark meat included and can be about equal to lean beef. Ground turkey breast, on the other hand, is very lean and has only about 1 percent fat.  Compare the nutrition facts labels to help you find the leanest option.   

Other excellent options would be chicken breast with the skin removed, portobello mushrooms, veggie or bean burgers, grilled shrimp or heart-healthy fish steaks like tuna or salmon.

What else to put on the grill?

Use the grill to make great-tasting, kid-friendly side items. Not only is it a healthy cooking method that locks in flavor, it reduces dirty dishes and cleanup. Both grilling and roasting bring out the natural sweetness in vegetables and fruits by caramelizing the sugars on the surface. If you don’t have a grill and you don’t want to heat up the kitchen with the oven, the toaster oven works, too. Try some grilled corn with lime or lemon juice instead of butter, and roast some cut potato slices for some flavorful fries. Alternatively, cook potatoes in the microwave to start them cooking and then wrap them in foil and finish on the grill for great flavor. Use sweet potatoes to add an excellent source of vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant. Also try grilled asparagus, a little olive oil and salt and pepper are all you need. Use excess garden squash and zucchini the same way: slice them and spread with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Add some minced garlic to the vegetables to add another layer of flavor and reap garlic’s blood pressure-lowering benefits. 

Let your kids help make fruit and vegetable skewers to grill. Kids are more likely to try foods and say they like it if they are involved in the process of choosing or preparing the food.  Cut pepper, onions, cherry tomatoes, pineapple, mushrooms and squash are all great options and can be a delicious and flavorful way to add fruits and vegetables to your meal. 

Fresh and Flavorful Sides

Creamy pasta and potato salads are picnic favorites but are often high in fat and calories. Try a healthier version by leaving the skin on the potatoes for added vitamins and a dose of nutritious and satisfying fiber. Substitute half the mayonnaise with nonfat Greek yogurt, light sour cream, or mayonnaise.  

Instead of chips, eat fresh fruit. If you are going to someone’s house, bring a watermelon or some other seasonal fruit, such as cantaloupe, honeydew, blueberries and strawberries. These are refreshing, contain electrolytes for the running kids on hot days and give a powerful nutritious boost. Make it fun for kids by making fruit kabobs using a variety of the summer’s colorful fruit. Try grapes, pineapple and strawberries, or use some of the melons. You can use toothpicks or pretzels to make mini-ones if sticks aren’t available. Colorful vegetable trays can be made more kid friendly by cutting carrots into “coins” and others into sticks; serve with salsa or guacamole or try hummus or bean dips.  

Tasty Desserts

For dessert, grill some peaches and drizzle with honey, or try grilled pineapple on a stick.  Remember that grilling helps draw out the sweetness so be creative and try some different fruits.  Grill watermelon for a warm outside but cool refreshing inside, and add some balsamic vinegar or honey for a sweet treat.

Cooling Sips

For a thirst-quenching and refreshing drink, make some naturally flavored water using this season’s delicious fruits and herbs. Pick up some of this season’s fresh fruits, snip some herbs from your garden, and add water. Try pineapple or cucumber and mint, melon and basil, lime and raspberry, lemon and lime…the combinations are endless. If you have time, let the mix sit for a couple hours, as it will help increase the flavor. It also looks great in a clear pitcher. Light and refreshing; I’ll drink to that.

Andrea Nikolai, MPH, RDN, LDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and works with UF/IFAS Extension Polk County as the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent.  You can reach her at or 863-519-1072. For upcoming fun food and nutrition classes, check out 

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