Grilling and Picnic Tips: Satisfying Side Dishes

Grilling and Picnic Tips: Satisfying Side Dishes

 Side dishes are what make family outings special, but can you make them satisfying and still healthful? Here are some excellent ways to kick-start a healthy spring and summer by making a few adjustments to side dishes, such as the typical macaroni salad, pasta salad, coleslaw, corn on the cob, and baked beans. Before planning your menu, consider these healthful tips for some great-tasting and healthful alternatives.


  1. 1.      Complement your meal with color

The most common barbecue side dishes are usually the same color, white or yellowish, such as coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni salad, corn, etc. When you choose side dishes, consider adding some color. Not only will it make your spread look more festive, but it will make it healthier as well.

Make a salad with fresh vegetables and fruits of different colors, such as spinach, cucumbers, carrots, red peppers, beets, broccoli, oranges, and berries. Roasting vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, beets, and asparagus, in the broiler with a little bit of oil, salt, and pepper is another great option. Finally, try adding different vegetables to your usual sides to give them added crunch and flavor. For example, you can add shredded carrot, jicama, and red pepper to your coleslaw.


  1. 2.      Use fresh, local ingredients for the best flavors

When choosing your fruits and vegetables, consult your local farmer or farmers’ market. The best tasting fruits and vegetables are usually the ones in season and picked fresh that day. You do not need to wait for summer to find fresh fruits and vegetables. Zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, rhubarb, apricots, cherries, and possibly strawberries are available beginning in May in many parts of the country. Of course, where you live impacts what is available.


  1. 3.      Hold the mayo

Many popular picnic side dishes are made with mayonnaise, such as potato salad, macaroni salad, and coleslaw. However, you can use many alternative ways to prepare these dishes to cut the fat and calories, but not the flavor!

Try these suggestions:

  • Use less mayonnaise or substitute low-fat mayonnaise
  • Substitute low-fat sour cream or yogurt for mayonnaise, and add a slightly sweet ingredient, such as raisins or fruit
  • Prepare a vinegar-based dressing that is tart and flavorful, without the added calories
  • Try using whole-wheat pasta in your pasta salad
  • Replace half of the pasta in your pasta salad with crunchy vegetables
  • Make a new side salad, such as a Caribbean sweet potato salad, tomato, cucumber, and red onion salad with mint, or arugula, fennel, and orange salad, and use less olive oil to reduce the calories (recipes courtesy of


  1. 4.      Fill up with fiber

Choosing healthier side dishes, such as baked beans (with moderate amounts of bacon and sugar), lower-fat salads, and roasted vegetables, will not only cut calories, but also will keep you fuller longer. Beans, fruits, and vegetables are all rich in nutrients and fiber that help promote satiety and prevent crashes in blood sugar after eating.


  1. 5.      Use the grill

As long as you are grilling, you might as well use the grill to make some great side dishes. Grilling vegetables is a great alternative to roasting them

Try these ideas:

  • Grill corn in the husk for some fantastic flavors without having to add much extra fat.
  • Try making a grilled eggplant salad with some fresh tomatoes, olives, garlic, basil, and low-fat feta.
  • Place freshly grilled vegetables on a bed of spinach or arugula for a satisfying salad.


References and recommended readings

Trevisan M, Krogh V, Freudenheim J, et al. Consumption of olive oil, butter, and vegetable oils and coronary heart disease risk factors. JAMA. 1990;263(5):688-692. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440050082038.

Contributed by Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS

Review date: 12/31/15

Updated by staff

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