Stay on top form and enjoy eating al fresco this summer with these expert tips
Summer’s here, which means that barbecue season is upon us! Dining al fresco doesn’t have to spell the end of your diet, though. In fact, as nutritionist Shona Wilkinson (shonawilkinson.com) explains, going to a barbecue can actually help boost your healthy regime. “You can eat lots of fresh, summer food that not only tastes delicious but still allows you to stick to your whole food diet,” she says. “There are so many dishes that you can include in the celebrations and, even if you’re going to a friend’s house and you don’t know what will be served, you can take along your own dishes to share.” However, we know how tempting a burger can be, so we asked the experts for their top tips for staying healthy this summer.
“The main thing is to avoid meat that has been overly processed – sausages and burgers are the key culprits, often containing fillers such as cereal binders, soya protein and maltodextrine, a food additive made from starch,” explains Shona. “They may also be high in added fats that you don’t want to include in your diet, especially if they’re from cheap sources which may be hydrogenated.” Vanessa Quarmby, Heck dietitian and nutritionist (theyorkshiredietitian.co.uk) agrees, adding that you shouldn’t feel guilty about putting a good quality burger on the barbecue. “Red meat such as beef provides essential iron and having a salad alongside it helps your body to absorb the iron more effectively – tomatoes in particular provide vitamin C to increase iron absorption,” she says. “There’s also plenty of chicken options available now, which are lower in fat than traditional sausages and beef burgers.”
It’s no hardship if you do want to skip the burgers, as there are still a lot of the great tasting meats to enjoy. “Choose from on the bone or filleted chicken, beef, pork and more. Freshly grilled meat is delicious as it is but, if you want to add some flavour, choose marinades or rubs,” Shona reveals. On the other hand, it’s really easy to make your own burgers at home, so you know exactly what’s gone into them, as Superdrug’s nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed explains: “Just buy some lean mince meat, add a few chopped spring onions and a couple of shakes of herbs and spices and voilà!”
If you’ve never cooked fish on a barbecue before, now is the time to start. “Fresh fish is great for your health and tastes amazing when barbecued. And, as all fish is healthy, you can choose whatever you fancy,” says Shona. “When grilling fish, it’s important not to burn it. This is because there’s a link between heterocyclic amines (HCAs), a carcinogen found in grilled meat and fish, and a higher risk of breast, stomach, pancreatic and colorectal cancer. Fresh fish simply grilled on the barbecue and served with a squirt of lemon is divine.”
“The sun and good company can often drive us to consume more alcohol than usual,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope (jennahopenutrition.com). “However, alcohol contributes to dehydration, especially if it’s a hot day, so ensure that you’re having a glass of water between each drink. Set yourself a limit before the party starts and sip slowly to make the drinks last longer. Stay away from beer and instead opt for a gin and tonic or a vodka with soda and lime, as you’ll be saving on the calories in a big way.”
Condiments such as salad cream and mayonnaise are often forgotten, as we don’t consider how much we’re using, but the extra calories do add up. “They’re a key source of added sugar and calories,” agrees Jenna. “Ensure that you’re not distracted by a conversation while you’re squeezing out your ketchup, as it can be all too easy to over do it if you are. Also, try not to go back for more sauces – once you’ve put some on your plate, call it a day.” For healthier sides and an alternative to mayonnaise, Vanessa suggests using yoghurt dressings in place of coleslaw, or making a rice salad with raisins for chewy sweetness and crisp apple for crunch.
Barbecue desserts can range from ice cream and cakes to trifles and lollies. “I recommend sticking to the fruit options – you could even offer to bring a fruit salad along with you,” says Jenna. If you’re hosting, you could also use the barbecue to create tasty desserts. “Try wrapping bananas in foil and putting them on the glowing embers to warm through,” suggests Vanessa. “Serve with Greek yoghurt for a sticky, sweet and healthy pudding.”
While they are a barbecue staple, buns don’t offer much in terms of nutrition. “They are high in refined carbohydrates, which can increase your appetite and cause you to overeat,” warns Jenna. “If your barbecue really isn’t complete without one, try opting for half a bun.”
“Make your barbecue spread colourful with plenty of bright vegetables (think: tomatoes, veggie kebabs, grilled aubergine, stuffed peppers, fresh fruit salads and some corn on the cob) to help make your table look appealing,” says Charlotte. “Give salads the limelight. Most of the time, salads are brought out as an afterthought at a barbecue. I always put them out first and make them something of a feature by adding different cheeses, nuts and fruit, such as strawberries and watermelon.” Vanessa also reminds us not to shy away from lentils and beans. “They’re delicious in salads and add protein and fibre, plus they’re low in fat,” she explains.
The side dishes at a barbecue are frequently ignored but it doesn’t have to be this way. “Jacket or sweet potatoes cooked on the barbecue are delicious and low in fat,” says Vanessa. “Wash their skins, then wrap them in foil and place them directly on the coals for an hour. This is a perfect side if you have guests who are vegetarian or who have a dairy or gluten intolerance.”