Healthy Summer BBQ Ideas: Time to Get Grilling!

National Academy of Sports Medicine
National Academy of Sports Medicine
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Summer is a great time of the year filled with sunshine, green grass, and of course barbecues! A summer barbecue is one of life’s simple pleasures. 

Now is the time to get outside, fire up your grill and enjoy some delicious, healthy foods with your friends and family. What could be better than that?

This is also a great subject for those who are aspiring to coach clients on nutrition or are already certified to do so. Grilling is the ultimate opportunity to give healthy suggestions (like those found in this post). 

Let's get started!

Meal Planning

But how does one go about cooking a healthy barbeque? A healthy barbeque sounds like an oxymoron (like “jumbo shrimp” or “cold hotdog”). Is it possible to host a barbeque that’s tasty yet low-calorie and full of important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants? You bet!

Before getting started, it is important to plan ahead. Your menu could include all of the summertime favorites: fruits & vegetables, burgers and hotdogs, chicken, and a variety of beverages. It’s also important to consider food safety, especially in the heat.

Fruits and Vegetables

Every barbeque should include an assortment of fruits and vegetables. Numerous research studies demonstrate that fruits and vegetables are critical to promoting good health (1-3). Fruits and vegetables are low-calorie, full of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and fiber. For example, one large apple contains approximately 130 calories, 260 mg of potassium, and 5 grams of dietary fiber (4). According to the CDC, “…those who eat more generous amounts [of fruits and vegetables] as part of a healthful diet are likely to have reduced risk of chronic diseases, including stroke and perhaps other cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers”(5).

To add a variety of fruits and vegetables to your barbeque menu, think color. Choosing fruits and vegetables with a variety of color provides a wide range of valuable nutrients like vitamins A and C, fiber, and potassium. Some examples include green beans, yellow corn, orange tangerines, purple eggplant, red apples, and white cauliflower.

Any of these food items can be mixed into a fruit salad or vegetable platter. When creating your fruit salad, avoid the temptation to add sugar and let your fruit’s natural sugars shine. For your veggie platter avoid placing a calorie-rich dip in the center, like ranch dressing. Instead opt for non-fat yogurt, hummus, or a dip made from low-fat cottage cheese (versus mayonnaise).

Beyond side dishes, fruits and vegetables can be the stars on the grill as well. Pineapple, eggplant, zucchini, portabella mushrooms, and bell peppers can be sliced and placed directly on the grates. Corn on the cob, still in the husk and briefly soaked in water is another option. There are also grill accessories that make roasting vegetables over the flames an easy alternative without losing the slices between the grates.

Burgers, Hotdogs, and Chicken, Oh My!

Most family barbeques include plenty of hamburgers, hotdogs, and chicken. If you're hankering for a burger or hotdog, substituting a black bean burger, veggie burger, or turkey hotdog could be your answer. When cooking with chicken, be sure to remove the skin. These food choices typically have less fat and calories.

However, cooking with beef is not completely out of the question. If you choose to have a traditional beef hamburger, you still can eliminate unnecessary calories by choosing lean beef options. Lean beef provides 10 essential nutrients for about 154 calories (6). In addition, load your burger or sandwich with plenty of vegetables (tomatoes, onions, mushrooms) while eliminating calorie-dense condiments (mayonnaise, ketchup, barbeque sauce). Mustard, salsa, horseradish, and hot sauce are better choices if you’re watching calories and fat. Lastly, opt for a whole-wheat bun. Generally speaking, whole wheat is higher in fiber, vitamin E, magnesium and zinc.  If you’re looking to cut even more calories, skip the bun altogether.


Most nutrition experts agree individuals should consume a majority of their calories through food rather than beverages. Consuming calorie-rich beverages is an easy way to sabotage your weight-loss efforts. For your next barbeque provide low-calorie beverages such as unsweetened iced teas or fruit infused waters. If you plan on providing alcoholic beverages, there’s now an abundance of lower calorie beers and liquors to choose from.

Food Safety Do’s and Don’ts

The Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE) states that $6.9 billion per year is spent due to food-borne illness or food poisoning associated with bacterial contamination such as pathogenic E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria (7). The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states that about 3,000 deaths annually are related to food poisoning (8). You can help avoid food poisoning by following four simple core practices: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

Clean: Keep hands clean before, during, and after food preparation activities, along with surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards, and utensils. These should each be washed with hot, soapy water after preparation of each food item. Fruits and vegetables should also be rinsed under running tap water as bacteria from the skins and rinds can spread as you prepare them.

Separate: Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs should always be kept separate from other foods in order to avoid cross-contamination. Use one cutting board for produce and a separate cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood-the same rule applies for plates and utensils.

Cook: The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states bacteria multiplies more quickly between 40° F and 140° F. Foods should be cooked to a minimum of 145° F and kept at 140° F or above once cooked. Use a quality food thermometer to ensure food has cooked properly. Test by placing the thermometer in the thickest part of the food and follow the instructions provided with your thermometer. For reference, here are minimum cooking temperatures for various foods.

Category Food Temperature (°F) Rest Time
Ground Meat/Meat Mixtures Beef, Pork Veal, Lamb 160 None
  Turkey, Chicken 165 None
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb Steaks, Roasts, Chops 145 3 minutes
Poultry Chicken, Turkey, Whole Poultry Breasts, Roasts, Poultry Thighs, Legs, Wings, Duck & Goose Stuffing 165 None
Pork and Ham Fresh Pork, Raw Ham 145 3 minutes
Seafood Fin Fish 145 or cook until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork. None
  Shrimp, Lobster, and Crabs Cook until flesh is pearly and opaque. None

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. FoodSafety.Gov. Available at: .

Chill: Food doesn’t become unsafe immediately since the bacteria needs time to grow. Prevent this growth by refrigerating foods within two hours of cooking and within one hour when the ambient temperature is 90° F or higher. Also be sure to keep food in the fridge when marinating or thawing.



1. Van Duyn MA, Pivonka E. Overview of the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption for the dietetics professional: selected literature. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000 Dec;100(12):1511-21.

2. Joshipura, KJ. et al.  The effect of fruit and vegetable intake on risk for coronary heart disease.  Ann Intern Med. 2001 Jun 19;134(12):1106-14.

3. He, FJ. et al. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease: meta-analysis of cohort studies. J Hum Hypertens. 2007 Sep;21(9):717-28. Epub 2007 Apr 19.

4. Food and Drug Administration. Fruits Nutrition Facts.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fruits and Vegetable Benefits.

6. Beauchesne-Rondeau E, et al. Plasma lipids and lipoproteins in hypercholesterolemic men fed a lipid-lowering diet containing lean beef, lean fish or poultry. Am J Clin Nutr, 2003;77:587-593.

7. on the Partnership for Food Safety Education site. Available at:

8. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. FoodSafety.Gov. Available at: .





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National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

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