Summertime Cooking, The Healthy Way with Elaine Magee, RD

Enjoy the joys of summer -- and stay healthy too!

From the WebMD Archives

Picnics, barbeques, backyard get-togethers -- the joys of summer! But how do you enjoy the fun and food and still eat healthy? Do you really have to give up Grandma Barb's potato salad and Grammy Betty's chocolate cupcakes? From lightening up your favorite summertime recipes to cooking for special needs diets such as diabetes or IBS, we got tips from WebMD's own healthy food expert, Elaine Magee.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: For me, it isn't a summer picnic without potato salad. Does there exist a good-tasting lightened version of potato salad?

Magee: Oh, yes, absolutely. I've lightened several versions over the years. Basically everybody has their favorite type of potato salad or potato salad recipe, so let me give you some general tips so everyone can lighten their own recipes.

I like to use real mayonnaise, like a 1/4 cup, and blend it with 3/4 cup of fat-free or light sour cream. This way you get a lighter-feeling dressing in your mouth but something that tastes similar to real mayonnaise. You can add flavor to your dressing with pickle relish, pickle relish juice, olives, or Dijon mustard, for example. There's lots of ways. But the base of the mayonnaise is 1/4 mayonnaise and 3/4 sour cream. Every time I've made this mixture before, everybody's loved it.

Moderator: I lighten pasta salad by adding lots of veggies and thinning the little bit of mayo I use with capers and the juice they come packed in. It tastes good -- but the pasta absorbs the dressing. Ideas?

Magee: Let's talk about lightening pasta salads with vinaigrette dressing instead of mayonnaise. With this type of recipe what I like to do is either, number one, buy a light bottled Italian dressing (how easy is that?) like, for example, Lite Done Right Italian or there's a Paul Newman's Italian Light dressing, and this would cut the fat in half. Or if you want to make it at home, you would cut the oil called for in half and substitute in something else like apple juice. Something that's going to add liquid but not oil, like caper juice.


Member question: Is grilling meat healthier than frying as far as fat is concerned? The fat drips through the grill instead of staying in a pan, so it seems like you're going to end up eating less fat. True?

Magee: It depends. I would tell people to start off with a lean cut of meat anyway so that way there really isn't that much fat to lose. I think the answer to your question is yes, in grilling, fat would drip away from the meat if you had a fattier cut of meat with visible fat. But if you have a fattier cut of meat that you're grilling and the fat is dripping down into the flames, some potential cancer or carcinogens make their way back up into the meat through flames and smoke.

Member question: Just how much cancer risk is there when you grill meats?

Magee: That's a hard one to answer. Do I still grill meat? Yeah, I do, once a week or so. Have your grilled meat with lots of fruits and vegetables. That way you're getting plenty of antioxidants at the same time. And if you start off with a lean meat you will get less fat dripping off and fewer carcinogens making their way back to the meat. Also, if you cook with indirect heat you minimize that risk because the flame isn't in contact with the meat.

Member question: I have a great Middle Eastern flavored marinade I use on the grill for kabobs, but it calls for a half-cup of oil. That seems like a lot. Just how much can I cut back on the oil to lighten up the marinade? Or is the type of oil I use more important than the amount?

Magee: With half a cup of oil, I would probably try to cut that back to a quarter cup at first and see if that seems to work. I would then try 3 tablespoons or so. I probably wouldn't go lower than 3 tablespoons, and I would definitely switch to a smarter-fat oil, such as canola oil or olive oil. Now, which one to choose, olive oil or canola oil? That would depend on whether or not you wanted the taste of olive oil, because canola oil has a neutral taste. But to answer your question about which is most important I would say both. I would say using less oil and using a better oil.


Moderator: How much attention should be paid to the sauces we put on grilled meat? My barbeque sauce recipe calls for butter, among many other ingredients.

Magee: I think it depends on how much sauce you are getting. If it's a little bit of sauce and the sauce has a little bit of butter I may not worry about that, but if you really are consuming a large amount of sauce, then it might behoove you to switch the butter to something else like canola oil in your sauce recipe. You could also probably use less, too. I wouldn't even think you would need to add anything in place of it; you could probably just get away with using a little less in the recipe.

Member question: I'm not a cold food lover, but using the oven in our St. Louis heat is no fun. Is there anything appetizing and healthy that can be cooked in the microwave? Seems no one actually cooks with the mike anymore -- just defrosting and reheating.

Magee: I personally don't like cooking meat in the microwave, because it eliminates the browning that takes place on the stove, and many of the flavors we enjoy come from browning. But I think it would be possible to do rice dishes with the microwave. Or a raspberry vinaigrette type poached fish in the microwave. I use the microwave constantly for vegetables. Another trick for summer is to make spaghetti sauce or lasagna and that type of things and freeze portions.

I live in California and it can get hot here, too. My family loves making a chicken Caesar salad. I buy the grilled chicken at a deli that we have near the house and then all I do is pretty much toss the salad with some veggies, my sliced chicken breast, and a light Caesar dressing with croutons. It's delicious, easy and cool.

Moderator: I always grill extra burgers. My teens can reheat them in the microwave and have burgers for lunch. What are some ideas for good picnic or barbeque foods that are already light?



  • Fruit salad, obviously, is a great picnic addition.
  • Raw veggie platter for nibbling; and I would tell people just to put some light ranch dressing or dip -- just buy the bottle of light ranch and squirt it in a bowl. That way you know your kids are getting fruits and vegetables, too.
  • Barbecued chicken breasts, especially if you remove the skin before you barbecue. People don't realize that half the fat is in the skin. So just take the skin off if you can.
  • A green salad could be light if a light dressing is being used.
  • Watermelon wedges are fun for kids to eat and all good.

Moderator: Do you have any tips for grilling veggies along with meat?

Magee: There's a couple of ways to do it. You can grill large pieces of vegetables on the grill or you can grill veggie kabobs, where you spread chunks of veggies on a skewer. I usually just use a light Italian dressing for this. Brush a little bit on and man, it's surprising how great veggies can taste this way. It can be very colorful, too.

Moderator: Pickled veggies make good side dishes, too.

Magee: The important point being that you are eating a balanced meal with lots of light and nutritious side dishes along with your grilled meat, and of course, dessert.

Moderator: What about desserts? What can you recommend as light desserts for a picnic?

Magee: We could make light chocolate cupcakes. I'm assuming a lot of people are using a cake mix and they need to know that you do not have to add any of the oil called for on the box directions. In other words, if the chocolate cake mix calls for half a cup of oil, all you need to do is add half a cup of something else instead of the oil. For a chocolate cupcake I like using fat-free sour cream as my oil substitute. It always turns out terrific.

Another light dessert is angel food cake served with fresh fruit. If you want, add a dollop on top of light whipped cream or light Cool Whip.


Cobbling Up a Lighter Cobbler

Member question: In the summer I love to make fresh fruit cobblers. How can I lighten up cobbler? I am already adding flax seed to the topping!

Magee: I actually have a to-die-for recipe for any fruit crisp in my flax seed cookbook, which is called The Flax Cookbook. It's page 172 of the cookbook. Let me just read off the topping ingredients, because that's basically where you're making the changes.

For the crisp topping I use:

  • 1/3 cups walnuts
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup ground flax seed, and if you don't want to use flax seed just increase the flour.
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt, if using unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted. You can use a no trans margarine in place of the butter, if you want.
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup or light pancake syrup

That's it! Basically what we've done is decrease the brown sugar a little, cut the butter in half, and used maple syrup in place of half the butter. So the calories have gone down and the fat grams have gone down.

Moderator: I have made your Any Fruit Crisp -- it is fantastic! You also have fruit smoothies in there that make terrific cool summertime snacks.

Magee: My favorite is probably strawberry banana-fana smoothie. It has:

  • One cup apple juice
  • Two cups frozen or fresh strawberries
  • Two small bananas or one large banana sliced
  • Two cups vanilla non-fat frozen yogurt or light ice cream
  • 3 tablespoons ground flax seed

This makes three smoothies. Each smoothie has almost 7 grams of fiber, too. They're delicious. I don't even like bananas, but I like that smoothie. I can tell you my children's favorite is peanut butter cup smoothie. And there are lots of other choices, like the Maui mango smoothie.

Moderator: We've been talking about summertime foods for most people. But now let's take a look at those with special needs.

Member question: I am hypoglycemic and I also have difficulties with irritable bowel syndrome. My husband does not have any problems now but diabetes runs in his family. We are on a budget; what foods are best for us? Also, I've heard different things about low carbs versus no carbs versus low fat versus high fat, and no meat versus lots of meat. What is best?


Magee: First of all, I can understand special needs; I have irritable bowel myself and my dad has had diabetes most of his adult life. Generally, what I'm talking about would work for people with diabetes. For example, people with diabetes are helped by keeping track of carbs, fat, and fiber. That way they discover what combination works best for them and their blood sugars. So you could enjoy pasta salad and barbecued chicken, for example, you would hopefully be keeping track of the amount of certain foods that work for you.

In terms of irritable bowel, you would probably know which foods are troublesome for your constitution and hopefully could easily avoid them. For me, eating light, in terms of low fat, really helps me personally. I generally do not have any problems eating at a picnic or barbecue, as long as I stay away from the real greasy, fatty foods. I would think with hypoglycemia you would be better off eating smaller, more frequent meals and making sure each meal has quite a bit of fiber and each meal is nicely balanced with some protein and good fats along with good carbohydrate choices.

To answer your question about high-protein, low-protein, high-carb, etc., I personally strongly feel that the low-carb way of eating is just plain wrong. What I think helps most people is to make smart carb choices and to make more balanced meal choices to include some protein and fat along with carbohydrates.

Member question: We're having a block party cookout and I know one family that's coming has two diabetic members. As the host, what should I be aware of in offering food?

Magee: You'll probably want to offer some high-fiber choices; limit sugars and sweeteners when you can; choosing smarter fats will also help, like olive oil and canola oil. But generally people with diabetes can eat anything; it's a matter of them knowing the portions that work for them. Generally the higher fiber the meal is, the easier on the blood glucose it's going to be, and then not overdoing certain carbohydrate-rich items.


This is a funny story about my dad who was diabetic (passed away a year ago). He called me one day and told me he was very confused coming home, he couldn't remember how to get home. He took his blood sugar when he got home and it was really high. So I asked him, "What did you eat two hours before?" He was describing his lunch and he said, "Oh, I had watermelon." I said, "How much watermelon?" He said, "One." "One slice?" "No, one watermelon." The point being, a little bit of watermelon is fine; a lot of watermelon can cause problems. That was the day he learned it's not that watermelon is bad, you'd be hard-pressed to eat more than 150 calories from a serving because it's mostly water, but if you eat enough of it, it can cause problems with your blood sugar.

Member question: My aunt always brings baked beans to family gatherings in the summer. What can be done to make baked beans healthier (aside from leaving out the salt pork)?

Magee: Baked beans are really not too bad. They're very sweet, so if you were making them from scratch, you could cut the sugar a little and instead of salt pork, you could add lean ham, which would give you some of those flavors, but without as much fat. I personally might add a little bit of flax seeds to baked beans because it's dark in color and the flax seed hides well.

I want everybody to remember that you do not want to eat food that has been out at room temperature for two hours or more.

Moderator: Speaking of that, let's talk about food safety in the summer.

Magee: Fruit salad is fine, because it doesn't have animal products in it. If a pasta salad, macaroni salad or meat or eggs are in the sun or hotter than room temperature, it's safe for less than two hours. Please be careful. Do NOT eat food that's been out too long. If you're serving the food, keep those foods on ice, if possible.


Moderator: Any good advice about beverages?

Magee: It's important in hot weather to drink plenty of water and decaffeinated beverages to hydrate. For the adults drinking the beer, drinking a light or nonalcoholic beer really cuts the calories. For lemonade, I make half Crystal Lite lemonade and half real lemonade and I find it satisfies most people. You basically have half the calories. I love iced tea. Making a fancy herb iced tea, having that all the time in the refrigerator in the summer all the time, is great. And if you make an herb tea it's decaf, generally.

Moderator: If you like your iced tea sweetened, you can cut the sugar and add to the flavor by adding fresh mint.

Elaine, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Magee: I just wanted to mention my most recent books. The Flax Cookbook, The Recipe Doctor, and Tell Me What to Eat if I Have Acid Reflux. There are also Tell Me What to Eat books for IBS, type 2 diabetes, and menopause.

Moderator: Our thanks to Elaine Magee, RD, for sharing her expertise with us today. Goodbye and good health.