The Best (and Worst) Summer Barbeque Foods

The Great American Barbecue is as much of a summer staple as the Hollywood blockbuster, the belly flop, and the farmer tan.

In fact, 71 percent of American households fire up the grill at least once a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, which means all of us will chew our way through thousands of calories worth of grill-friendly foods.

And while a live flame can be a healthy cooking tool, the nutritional differences between a hot dog and a hamburger, a mojito and a margarita, might determine whether you fit into, or overflow, the waistline of your swimsuit this summer.

But it’s not just the main courses that demand careful consideration. The vast supporting cast of sides, drinks, and desserts that round out the BBQ menu have potentially dramatic caloric implications. Choose the wrong ones and you’ve added 300 or 400 unnecessary calories to your meal; choose the right ones and you can fill your belly, and show it off, all summer long! 

Eat This:
Hot Dog with onions, relish, ketchup and mustard
270 calories
12 g fat

Hot dogs get a bad rap, but they score a resounding victory in the battle of American barbecue classics. Hot dogs benefit from two simple realities: First, the skinny bun makes for built-in portion control, which means unless you’ve fired up foot-long brats or have a penchant for chili and cheese, you’re unlikely to build a dog with more than 300 calories. Second, the traditional condiments for hot dogs — ketchup, mustard, relish, onions — are of the low-calorie variety.

Not That!
Cheeseburger with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, ketchup and mustard
600 calories
28 g fat

It may carry a fig leaf of lettuce, but it’s also overloaded with empty calories. And if you're among the half of Americans who slather their hamburger buns with mayo, you'll lump another 100 calories onto the total. Most burger meat is 20 percent fat even before you blanket it in processed cheese, so the calories add up quickly. Unless you’re willing to build your burger from 95 percent lean beef and ditch the cheese, you’re looking at 500 calories, minimum. (Go with 95 percent lean beef, though, and lose more than 20 grams of fat!)

Eat This:
Chips and Guacamole
175 calories
12 g fat

No, tortilla chips don’t beat out raw vegetables, but guacamole trounces ranch dressing (below). That’s because avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, so they help fill your belly at the same time that they protect your heart. But make sure your guac is made from real avocados; many national-brand “guacamole dips” are made with less than 2 percent avocado. Your best bet? Make it at home; you can have a huge, crowd-pleasing batch ready in under 5 minutes. Our favorite recipe is right here.

Not That!
Veggies and ranch
200 calories
14 g fat

This ubiquitous summer appetizer is less about the vegetables and more about a sturdy delivery system to offload the ranch from bowl to mouth. Unfortunately, on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of solid nutrition, ranch registers a resounding 0. Want to make the ultimate snack? Ditch the ranch and the tortilla chips and dip your veggies in guac instead.  

Eat This:
Baked Beans
150 calories
2 g fat

Beans are holders of the nutritional triple crown: They’re packed with protein and fiber, they're sultans of satiety, and they’re one of the richest sources of antioxidants on the planet. So for a mere 150 calories, you get a food that will fill your belly, rev up your metabolism, and help fend off the Reaper. Just make sure your version — whether homemade or store-bought — isn’t loaded with added sugars.

Not That!
Potato Salad
220 calories
12 g fat

Potatoes are already at the low end of the vegetable totem pole: they’re high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, which translates into a big spike in blood sugar levels. Want diabetes with that? But when you add a jar of mayonnaise to the mix, things go from bad to worse pretty quickly. Odds are that potato salad will be the most calorie-dense side dish at any barbecue you attend this year. Give it a wide berth, or grow a wider gerth.

Drink This:
175 calories
15 g sugars

This rediscovered favorite among cocktail connoisseurs is made from fresh mint, fresh lime juice, and zero-calorie club soda. Add to that a restrained glug of rum and a teaspoon of sugar and you’re looking at one of the “healthiest” libations you’ll ever stumble across. And if you drink few enough to avoid stumbling yourself, you've solved the booze weight-gain problem.

Not That!
500 calories
35 g sugars

Pre-made margarita mix is slime green for a reason. It’s a warning sign: Toxic spill ahead! Margarita mixes are high-fructose corn syrup with an injection of artificial lime flavoring, making them a serious threat to your beach body. If you simply must have a margi, make it a real one, with fresh lime juice, tequila, and just a touch of sugar.

Eat This:
Ice Cream Sandwich
180 calories
7 g fat
13 g sugars

If you simply must indulge your sweet tooth, do it with an ice cream sandwich. Unlike a piece of pie or a bowl of ice cream, which are dangerously undefined, size-wise, the ice cream sandwich comes in a small, pre-determined portion that rarely cracks the 200-calorie threshold.

Not That!
Apple Pie
400 calories
15 g fat
29 g sugar

Don’t be fooled by the wholesome association with "mom." Think "Eve," instead, and eternal damnation. The crust that holds those innocent apple slices is fashioned from lard and refined flour, and the fruit floats in a thick ooze of sugar sludge. Pie has more calories than an 8 oz sirloin and more sugar than most candy bars — and that’s not even counting that big scoop of vanilla ice cream you’re likely to flop next to the slice.

To discover — and avoid! — other insulin-spiking, gut-busting, sugar-laden foods, check out these sickly sweet offenders that rate as America’s most sugar-packed foods! And consumer beware: Sugar is lurking in more than just the food you eat, as this guide to the 20 unhealthiest drinks shows. Need to avoid salt? Then go with this indispensable list of 20 foods your cardiologist wouldn’t ever eat!

Have other tips? Please share them with all of us here.

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