Summer Cookout Hacks

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 06, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

picnic spread

As temperatures rise, simplify summer suppers using foil packets. This versatile technique allows you to combine your favorite veggies and proteins on the grill with delicious results.

Packet Primer

For each packet, tear off a 12" x 18" sheet of heavy-duty foil and place on a flat surface. Arrange ingredients in the center of the foil. Bring up the short ends of the foil and seal with a double fold, leaving space in the packet for expansion due to steam. Fold remaining edges together to completely enclose. To open after grilling, cut a large X across the top, carefully fold back the foil (it will be hot!),

Southwestern Tilapia with Black Bean Salsa

The foil packet method is a great way to grill fish, making it less likely to fall apart on the hot grill rack. We used tilapia, but any type of firm fish will work well. Serves 4.


1 16-ounce can low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained

1 large tomato, chopped

1 cup fresh corn, cut from the cob

1 red sweet pepper, finely chopped

3 green onions, thinly sliced

1 small jalapeño, minced (optional)

2 tbsp lime juice

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp minced garlic

4 6-ounce tilapia filets

¼ tsp sea salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 lime, quartered

¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro


Preheat grill to medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, combine beans, tomato, corn, red pepper, green onions, and jalapeño, if using; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice, vinegar, olive oil, cumin, and garlic.

On each piece of foil, place one piece of fish. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Top with one-fourth of the bean mixture and dressing mixture. Fold the packet as directed to close, above.

Grill, covered, over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. Serve with fresh lime and cilantro.

Per serving: 388 calories, 45 g protein, 38 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 84 mg cholesterol, 11 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 246 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 17%

Five Spice Asian Tofu

Foil packets are always flexible, as this recipe demonstrates: If you're not fond of tofu, use chicken or firm fish instead. This one calls for five spice powder -- available in the spice section of large supermarkets -- and miso, a flavorful paste found in the refrigerated section. It also includes daikon radish, a crisp, mild vegetable popular in Japanese cuisine. If you can't find it, try chopped turnip or red radish instead. Serves 4.


2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce

1 tbsp grated fresh ginger

1 tbsp miso

1 tsp five spice powder

1 tsp honey

1 16-ounce package firm tofu, drained, patted dry, and cubed

1 daikon radish, peeled and julienned

1 yellow sweet pepper, cut into thin strips

1 cup shredded carrots

1 leek, white part only, sliced into rings

16 snow peas, cut into thin strips

2 tbsp chopped, unsalted roasted peanuts


Preheat grill to medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, miso, five spice powder, and honey; add tofu and toss to coat. In another bowl, toss radish, yellow pepper, carrots, leek, and snow peas.

On each piece of foil, place one-fourth of the tofu. Top with one-fourth of the vegetables and any remaining dressing. Fold the packets as directed to close.

Grill, covered, over medium-high heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Carefully open packets, garnish with peanuts, and serve.

Per serving: 280 calories, 17 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 18 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 303 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 55%

Turmeric Lemon Chicken

The sunny color of this chicken comes from turmeric, a root popular in Indian cooking. To make the cauliflower "rice" in this recipe, use a food processor (or box grater) to cut cauliflower into tiny pieces. (Some supermarkets sell cauliflower rice in the freezer section, which can save a step as you prep.) The recipe calls for chicken thighs, but you can use boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead. Serves 4.


2 tbsp finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes

4 tbsp chopped fresh basil, divided

2 cups riced cauliflower (about one small head)

1 large lemon, thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

12 stalks Broccolini, coarsely chopped

8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 tsp lemon zest

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp turmeric

¼ tsp sea salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste


Preheat grill to medium-high heat. In a small bowl, mix sun-dried tomatoes and 2 tbsp basil with the cauliflower rice.

On each piece of foil, place one-fourth of the cauliflower mixture and top with lemon slices, red onion, Broccolini, and chicken thighs.

In a small bowl, whisk together oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, and turmeric. Drizzle evenly over the four packets, sprinkle each with salt and pepper, and fold the packet as directed to close.

Grill, covered, over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the chicken reaches 165°F. Open packets carefully.

Garnish with remaining 2 tbsp basil and serve.

Per serving: 247 calories, 31 g protein, 10 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 115 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 322 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 37%

Healthy Cookout Hacks

Cookouts with family and friends are a highlight of the summer -- and a common time to take a vacation from healthy habits. Registered dietitian Cheryl Reitz, a certified diabetes educator at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests these fresh, tasty alternatives to standard cookout fare and offers a few ways to keep yourself on track during summer festivities.

Make It Mayo-Free

Mayonnaise is loaded with fat and calories, so look for alternatives to the creamy stuff. For example, Reitz tosses coleslaws with vinegar-based dressings. She also makes a low-carb version of potato salad by substituting lightly steamed cauliflower for potatoes and coating the florets in a sauce made with ½ cup protein-rich plain Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon mustard, 1 tablespoon pickle relish, and ½ teaspoon celery salt.

Add Avocado

For a simple but satisfying salad, Reitz cubes ripe avocado -- a source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats -- and tosses it with chopped fresh tomato, green onions, lime juice, and olive oil.

Build Better Burgers

Reitz makes lean burgers with ground turkey or chicken, adding her own spice mixes. One of her favorite combos is ground fennel, a little salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and sage. She sprays the grill rack with olive oil to prevent the burgers from sticking. She also pops some of the patties into the freezer to have on hand for quick weeknight grilling.

Celebrate Summer Fruits

In place of cookies and other treats, Reitz makes a sweet salad with seasonal fruits such as melons and berries tossed with fresh mint and lemon zest.

Fire Up the Slow Cooker

In place of fatty grill fare, Reitz makes pulled pork in the slow cooker using a lean pork roast or pork chops trimmed of visible fat. She simmers them in 2 cups low-sodium beef broth, ¼ cup black coffee, and 1 teaspoon of minced garlic. (Really!) "The coffee tenderizes the meat, and it basically falls apart," Reitz says. After shredding the cooked meat, she tosses it with a little barbecue sauce (she likes sugar-free varieties) and serves the pork on whole-grain buns.

Use Your Plate Strategically

"It can be hard to gauge what we eat during a social event like a cookout," Reitz says. She recommends using a smaller, dessert-size plate, given the common urge to fill it up. Each time you put food on the plate, pause and make a mental note of what you're about to eat. And use the plate method as you make food choices, Reitz says. Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, one-fourth with a protein such as chicken, and the other fourth with fruit or other veggies such as potatoes and corn.

Focus on the Company

"The most important reason we're at an event like a cookout is to enjoy the company of others," Reitz says. "I often tell people to focus on enjoying the socializing and the opportunity to be together, rather than focusing on the food."

Go for Leafy Greens

One of Reitz's favorite summer salads -- dressed in fresh lemon juice and olive oil -- includes peppery arugula, a cup of cubed watermelon, and a sprinkle of reduced-fat feta.

Try Zucchini Noodles

For a twist on the usual pasta salads, use a spiralizer tool to make noodles from zucchini, a plentiful summer vegetable. (You can also find pre-made zucchini noodles in your supermarket freezer section.)

Reitz adds "zoodles" to chopped tomatoes, peppers, and onions and tosses with a light dressing.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine.