Spice Up Your Summer BBQs and Picnics

WebMD gives you tips on how to make typical barbeque favorites go from average to amazing.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 11, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Want to add healthy sizzle to your summer barbeques and picnics, without sacrificing taste? It's possible, thanks to a dizzying array of ingredients and ideas stirring in America's melting pot.

Don't worry, this doesn't necessarily mean giving up your favorite foods or slaving over a complicated recipe.

"You can have a traditional BBQ and accommodate all your friends with the same basics -- the burgers, meat, chicken, salad, and corn on the cob -- and season it with a variety of different toppings and accompaniments," explains Lisa Dorfman, MSRD, a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA), and author of The Tropical Diet.

A Cornucopia of Choices

Most mainstream grocery stores have powdered seasonings, salsas, sauces, spices, drinks, fruits, and vegetables from all cultures that are easy to serve with barbeque and picnic favorites.

Options include:

  • Middle Eastern or Mediterranean hummus. This paste of pureed chickpeas, lemon, sesame tahini, oil, and spices can be served as a dip or spread for veggies, crackers, and bread. Hummus is high in protein and fiber, and often contains little or no saturated fat, cholesterol, or sugars.
  • Jicama. Peel and cut up this low-calorie tropical root to eat raw, sprinkled on your regular salads, or stir-fried with vegetables. This crunchy and sweet vegetable, which is also known as the Mexican potato or the Chinese turnip, is an excellent source of vitamin C.
  • Jamaican hot sauce. With no fat or calories, this potent blend of tropical peppers can add a Caribbean kick to grilled lean meats.

You can even use familiar ingredients to create exotic dishes, which can both intrigue and appease the most conservative diner:

  • Lemon juice, red pepper, and salt are all many Indians need to add zing to corn on the cob.
  • Latin Americans use tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeño, onions, garlic, and salt to create tasty salsas.
  • Some Kenyans tenderize and jazz up meats with an overnight marinade of olive oil, vinegar, or lemon juice, and spices (ground pepper, cloves, and rosemary among them).

To really impress your family and friends, bring something completely different to the picnic table.

Malena Perdomo, RD, the Latin Nutrition spokeswoman for the ADA, recommends trying a prickly pear cactus, called Nopal, which can be bought in some urban supermarkets and Mexican grocery stores. The thorny vegetable, which tastes like a lemony and salty green bean, is peeled, boiled, or grilled, and then added to dips, salads, soups, and meats.

Nopales -- the plural form of Nopal -- are especially rich in fiber, calcium, potassium, and vitamin A.

From the exotic Nopales to the common lemon, Americans do, indeed, have a lot of choices when it comes to culturally diverse and healthy fare.

If the above sampling of foods has whetted your appetite for something different this summer, make sure to read on. WebMD has a few more scrumptious and nutritious options, provided by a few ADA dietitians and other health experts.

We've broken down the ideas by the course -- from the appetizers, to the sides and sauces, to entrees, to desserts and drinks. Give them a try, and discover a world of delicious, healthy eating.

Bon appétit!


The beginning portion of a barbeque or picnic is a good time to introduce new foods, because people don't normally eat appetizers to fill themselves.

"If they don't eat [the appetizer], it's OK, because the main food is still coming," says Mary Murimi, RD, PhD, chair-elect of the international division of the Society for Nutrition Education.

To entice hesitant diners, Murimi suggests presenting new fare in smaller, more familiar arrangements. Instead of making a whole salad full of strange-looking provisions, for example, she recommends slicing up fruits and vegetables, and then serving them individually in a tray. Having toothpicks available can help people sample the new foods at their leisure.

Tropical fruits such as mangoes, papayas, kiwis, guavas, and pineapples make succulent starters. They are rich in vitamin C. Deep-orange fruits and vegetables are also good sources of vitamin A.

Other ideas for starters include:

  • Grilled fruits and vegetables. Corn on the cob, tomatoes, okra, lemon, zucchini, and oranges are tasty placed on the grill with a spritz of olive oil, or without anything on them. Plus, they are chock full of different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. You may eat them straight off the barbeque grill, add them to salads or seafood, or make kabobs with them.
  • Raw or grilled peppers. Although vitamin C- and A-rich peppers are in the vegetable family, so many varieties exist that they deserve their own listing. There are sweet peppers like the green, red, orange, and yellow bell peppers. Chili peppers include the jalapeno, habanero, poblano, and serrano. Chop up sweet peppers, and eat them raw. Or dip in nonfat yogurt for a dose of calcium. Chili peppers on the grill tend to burst with flavor. Eat straight off the grill, or add to salads, seafood, and meats.
  • Stir-fried tofu. This low-calorie Asian bean curd is an excellent source of protein and iron. Since it has little taste on its own, tofu can be mixed in raw or stir-fried with other ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, soy sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and oils, and take on different flavors. Make sure to use sauces low in sodium, and oils low in saturated fat.

Sides and Sauces

Can't forgo your steak, burgers, and hotdogs? No problem. Serve sides and sauces with your traditional picnic and barbeque fare to prevent culture shock.

Many exotic dips and accompaniments are available in regular stores, from salsas, to curries, to rice and breads. Just make sure you choose products that are low in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. Opt for more nutrient-rich items, such as whole-grain brown rice instead of white rice.

To ensure your selection is a healthy one, you can even make it yourself. Various health-conscious recipes of foreign fare can be accessed on the Internet and in local bookstores.

Appetizing substitutions can also often be made to boost nutritionnutrition and lower less-desired items.

Instead of using salt on a dish, for example, experiment with fresh herbs and spices, suggests Garth Graham, MD, MPH, deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Minority Health, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He recommends items such as cilantro, oregano, serrano peppers, minced garlic, and onions.

Additional ideas for sides and sauces include:

  • Tortillas. Bake this low-fat Hispanic bread, grill it, or heat it up in a microwave or pan. Perdomo suggests wrapping the tortillas around lean meats, fishes, and vegetables.
  • Nan. This bread can be purchased in Indian grocery stores. It is a good source of complex carbohydrates, and can be eaten by itself or dipped in different sauces.
  • Beans. With so many varieties such the pinto, black, red kidney, and lentil, there are many ways to prepare this fiber-filled legume. You can open up a can of beans, or boil the dried versions in water. Perdomo, who is of Latin American origin, likes to add cilantro, onions, and tomatoes to her beans.
  • Salsas. There are different types of salsas, from the pico de gallo to the salsa verde to salsa roja. Although salsas are mostly associated with Latin Americans, Murimi says Kenyans have their own version of it. She likes to mix tomatoes, green pepper, green onions, and onions. For a sweet and sour taste, she adds in mangoes and pineapples.

The Main Course

Some people cannot imagine a barbeque or picnic without the sizzle of steaks or burgers. That's fine as long as you veer toward the leaner options.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the leanest beef cuts include round steaks and roasts (round eye, top round, bottom round, round tip), top loin, top sirloin, and chuck shoulder and arm roasts. The leanest pork options include pork loin, tenderloin, center loin, and ham.

To ensure you get the healthiest kind of ground beef, look for the label that says it is at least 90% lean.

Instead of frying or breading meats and seafood, try broiling, grilling, roasting, poaching, or boiling them.

Here are other ways of ensuring a healthy and exotic entrée:

  • Marinate meats with sauces that are low in fat, sodium, sugar, and calories. Try the Indian chicken Tikka, which combines low-fat yogurt, lemon, salt, onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom seeds, cinnamon sticks, cumin, cloves, black peppercorns, and nutmeg. Lalita Kaul, RD, PhD, a spokeswoman for the ADA, and a professor of nutritionnutrition at Howard University Medical School in Washington, suggests adding fresh, hot green chili to add a kick to the marinade.
  • Go Mexican and add fajita, taco, enchilada, and burrito mixes to your lean meats. Mix in onions, garlic, and cilantro for extra flavor.
  • Serve meats with fresh salsa on top. In Dorfman's The Tropical Diet, there is a recipe for Island Pork with a colorful fruit salsa. The salsa contains chopped mango pieces, Tabasco sauce, chopped red bell peppers, pineapple chunks, fresh cilantro, and chopped red onions.

Desserts and Drinks

No need to disregard your sweet tooth. There are plenty of healthy options for desserts.

Exotic fruits are obvious selections. Try passion fruit, pomegranate, carambola (starfruit), cherimoya, or lychees.

You can eat fruits as is, baked, or in fruit salads, juices, smoothies, and sorbets.

Here are other suggestions for desserts and drinks:

  • Stay cool with the halo-halo, a Filipino concoction of crushed ice, sweet red beans, jackfruit, coconut meat, sweet yam, and milk.
  • Use nonfat or low-fat milk in recipes. In Dorfman's book, she offers a low-fat version of the traditionally high-fat Latin dessert called Tres Leches. Nonfat versions of milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk are used. Chopped kiwi is also added to the batter, and the cake is topped with fresh strawberries and mandarin oranges.
  • Take a swig of the South Asian lassi, which combines nonfat yogurt with ice, mango pulp, salt, or sugar. The traditional lassi can be seasoned with ground-roasted cumin.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Lisa Dorfman, MSRD, national spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association (ADA); author, The Tropical Diet. Malena Perdomo, RD, spokeswoman, Latin Nutrition, ADA. Mary Murimi, RD, PhD, chair-elect, International Division of the Society for Nutrition Education. Garth Graham MD, MPH, deputy assistant secretary, Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Lalita Kaul, RD, PhD, spokeswoman, ADA; professor of nutrition, Howard University Medical School, Washington. WebMD Doctor's Views On: "The 'Melting Pot' Diet." Jicama, Hummus, Tofu, Tortilla, Lassi. CDC web site: "5 A Day: Vegetable of the Month: Tubers" and "5 A Day: Vegetable of the Month: Exotic Vegetables." "Exotic Fruit – Tropical Fruit." USDA's "Inside the Pyramid: Meats & Beans." The New York Times, June 21, 2006: "The World's Cups."

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