Between celebrations, holidays, and pretty much any sunlit evening, cookouts abound during the summer months. And while dining alfresco with friends is a lot of fun, it can be a challenge for many of us.
There’s the temptation to regress away from established health habits, the fear that every barbecued bite will negatively impact our health routines, and the “should I go or skip it?” dilemma with each invitation. The good news: There doesn’t have to be any of that!
“To maintain healthy habits, many of us thrive with structure," says Kimberly Plessel, a registered dietitian and Orangetheory Medical Advisory Board member. “Focusing on key behaviors will help you stay action-oriented while you enjoy the summer months.”
And get this: The foods we eat during this season can appropriately fit into one’s health routine without negative stigma, adds Jay Patruno, a registered dietitian and Orangetheory’s Experimentation Manager and Nutrition Strategist.
Read on for 15 tips for navigating summer cookouts, brought to you by Plessel, Patruno, and Katie Hake, also a registered dietitian and Orangetheory’s International Fitness Training and Support Manager.
Listen to these pros, and you’ll have a delicious, guilt-free summer.
1. Avoid the diet mentality. Eat regular meals and snacks to help balance your blood sugars, energy levels, and mood, Hake advises. “Skipping meals to ‘save calories,’ over exercising to ‘earn your food,’ and other restrictive behaviors will only leave you feeling deprived and more likely to overeat later in the day.”
2. Stay hydrated, prioritizing water. Sip on H20 throughout the day too. Not only will this protect your performance in the studio, Plessel says, it’s critical for keeping you hydrated as the temps climb. Get bored with plain water? She recommends trying fruit-infused variations to help moderate your caloric intake from any sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol. “For the fun drinks, sip out of a tall, narrow glass, as the volume appears greater than when served in a short, wide glass.”
3. Space your protein intake throughout the day. “That way, you don’t go to the gathering ravenous and vulnerable,” Plessel says. Remember, protein is satiating and supports your lean muscle after your studio workout. While surveying the buffet, she adds, reserve a quarter of your plate for lean protein.
4. Find out what’s on the menu. If at all possible, gleaning ahead of time what’s on the menu can be helpful to plan accordingly, suggests Patruno. This is especially important, he adds, to diminish any anxiety around food allergies or cultural preferences.
5. Use a smaller plate. At every buffet, start with a smaller plate and a single serving, piece, scoop, or slice of the items you value most. Patruno makes such a good point: “You can always go back for more, but this helps prevent your eyes being bigger than your stomach.”
6. Reference the “Plate Method” to guide your selections. In accordance with MyPlate and Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, Plessel says to aim to fill half your plate with nutrient- and fiber-rich fruit and vegetables. Not sure if the cookout will include those selections? “Offer to bring a fruit bowl, colorful salad or easy veggie tray,” she says. “Otherwise, enjoy a plant-based ‘appetizer’ on your way to the event.”
7. Pick foods that you actually want. Prefer your grandmother’s renowned blueberry pie over that store-bought ice cream cake? Dig in! “When you allow yourself to eat the foods you enjoy, you will be more likely to eat the amount you need,” Hake says. “Consider different textures, flavors, and dishes that hold sentimental value as well. All of these contribute to a more positive eating experience.”
8. Choose your calories wisely. Patruno recommends choosing oils over solid fats, prioritizing lowfat or nonfat dairy foods, selecting lean proteins from a variety of sources (animal products, nuts, seeds, and legumes), and balancing your intake of calories from beverages with calories from food and snacks. Similar recommendations can be found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, as well.
9. Eat slowly. Try to be the last one to start eating, then pace yourself with the slowest eater at the cookout, says Plessel. “It takes time to clearly appreciate our hunger and fullness cues, especially when we are distracted and eating with others. Aim to eat to 80% full, a technique that has been touted to support health and longevity.”
10. Take breaks between servings. See someone you want to catch up with, or a game of cornhole calling your name? Do it now. “Engage in conversation or an activity before deciding on helping yourself to another plate of food,” suggests Patruno.
11. Remember, it's okay to say no. If you identify feelings of fullness, recognize that it’s okay to honor these physical feelings and deny pressure from others to have more, Hake advises. Need a reply ready to go? Hake shares these two: “No thanks, but can you share the recipe?” or, “I would love to take home leftovers to enjoy when I’m not so full!”
12. Practice mindful eating. Think sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Using the five senses while eating can help you to pay attention, further enhancing the eating experience, explains Hake. “The visual appeal, the aromas, and the awareness can help contribute to feeling present and in the moment,” she says. According to mindful eating research, with this approach, a person’s choices often are to eat less, savor eating more, and select foods consistent with desirable health benefits.
13. Keep moving. Even if your summer schedule changes up week to week, you can still get in exercise—it just may look different than your usual routine. Embrace being flexible. An Orangetheory class today, a power walk tomorrow. “Schedule your workouts ahead of time and add them to your calendar,” Patruno says.
14. Phone a friend. Research shows that finding a new exercise companion increases the amount of exercise people do. “Leverage a workout buddy to be accountable for workouts before or after summertime engagements,” Patruno recommends.
15. Treat yourself with kindness. At the end of the day, remember this from Hake: “Health and longevity in life require looking at the total picture of wellness including not just your physical health, but also your mental, emotional, spiritual health, and more.”