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Healthy Summer Cookouts: Yes, They Can Be Good for You

How to tweak the classic picnic without compromising the taste — or your health

By Cathy Fisher

You can’t get more all-American than the traditional summertime cookout. It’s where we celebrate all things deliciously decadent, like hotdogs and hamburgers, creamy prepared salads and an endless supply of ice cream and cookies.

This traditional festivity is also a reflection of our society’s appetite for excess when it comes to food, which can cause weight gain, chronic disease and discomfort. But a growing number of people are seeking ways to enjoy good health and social gatherings along with an abundance of tasty foods. They're finding creative ways to relish traditional favorites without totally overhauling them.

The following five recipes are perfect examples of familiar foods that have been given healthy makeovers. In each, I’ve eliminated: salt, sugar and oil; most packaged foods, which are often made with inferior ingredients and packed with preservatives to extend their shelf life; and animal products (meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy).

This may lead you to ask, “Well, what’s left?” My answer is, “So much!” It’s true that when we’re conditioned to eating these foods, it’s hard to imagine a diet that excludes them. But as someone who has been eating this way for years, I can assure you there’s a long, colorful list of delicious foods to work with.

My recipes rely exclusively on vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes, nuts and/or seeds. They offer plenty of flavor to keep your taste buds happy and your belly satisfied. But changing how we eat is like learning a new language: It takes a little time and practice to get the hang of this style of cooking and to allow your taste buds to adjust to a more whole-foods, plant-based diet. Once your palate makes the shift, you’ll likely to lose your taste for fatty, fried, processed foods.

The next time you have a picnic or cookout, try the following recipes. In addition to the great taste, you’ll enjoy not feeling bloated and heavy after eating. And you may be surprised at how much other people love your food!

(MORE: Five Cornerstones of a Healthy Vegetarian Diet)

Veggie Burgers
These burgers are great at a barbecue, but you can also do creative things with the leftovers, like crumble them onto a green salad or a baked potato.

Makes about 10 patties

½ cup dried pearl barley or short-grain brown rice
1¾ cups water if using barley, or 1 cup water for brown rice
1 15-oz. can (1½ cups) kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup rolled oats
½ large yellow onion, chopped
6–8 white button or crimini mushrooms, washed, ends trimmed and chopped
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1½ teaspoons ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon granulated onion
¼ cup tomato paste or homemade ketchup (see recipe below)
Optional sides: tomatoes, lettuce leaves, avocado, sliced red onion, salt-free ketchup, mustard

Note: While not necessary, cooking the grain the night before and refrigerating it creates a firmer, easier-to-cook burger. If you like, you can make the whole recipe ahead of time and cook the patties the next day.

  1. Cook grain according to instructions on box or place barley in a pot and add water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, cover and cook for 60 minutes. For short-grain rice, combine water and rice, bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, cover and cook for 50 minutes. (Long-grain takes about 45 minutes.) Remove from heat and let sit covered for 10 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the cooked grain, beans, oats, onion, mushrooms, herbs, spices and ketchup. Transfer half to a food processor and blend just until sticking together. Place this into a new bowl. Blend the second half of the vegetable mixture in the same way and add to the first half.
  3. To make burgers, shape into patties about 3 to 4 inches wide and a half-inch thick. Place 3 or 4 patties in a nonstick skillet and cook on medium heat, flipping after 5–10 minutes on the first side. Cook until lightly browned on both sides, pressing down occasionally with the spatula. Don’t overcook or over-flatten; as they cool they will firm up.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 8 Great New Meat Alternatives)

Homemade Ketchup
You’ll be amazed at how tasty ketchup can be without sugar or salt! Enjoy it on veggie burgers or baked French fries.

Makes 1 cup

1 6-oz. can no-salt tomato paste
Half an apple, peeled and diced
1/3 cup water (or substitute 1/3 cup apple juice for apple and water)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or 1 tablespoon vinegar)
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon dried oregano

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Keeps for 1 week in the fridge.

Oil-Free French Fries
Giving up oil and salt doesn’t mean giving up French fries!

Serves 4–6

3–4 large potatoes (Russet, Yukon Gold, sweet potato or yam), washed but not peeled and cut into ¼-inch x ¼-inch slices
½ teaspoon of granulated garlic (or dried herbs or spices of your choice)

  1. Preheat oven to 400º F.
  2. Add some flavor to the fries by placing cut potatoes in a plastic bag with granulated garlic or dried herbs or spices and shaking to coat before baking.
  3. Place cut potatoes on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip and bake for another 15 minutes or until they are golden brown and puffed up. Serve immediately with homemade ketchup.

Macaroni Salad
In this recipe, I’ve replaced the sugar in the dressing with dates and added cashews for a creamy richness. 

Serves 6–8

For Dressing:
½ cup water
½ cup unsalted raw cashews
2 medjool dates, pitted and quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
3–4 tablespoons lemon juice (juice from 1 lemon)

For Salad:
2 cups dry whole-grain macaroni pasta
water for boiling pasta
3 ribs celery, diced
2 carrots, grated
1 red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup loosely packed parsley, chopped
½ cup loosely packed fresh basil, chopped
Optional: 1 ripe avocado, diced

  1. Place all dressing ingredients into a blender and set aside to soak while pasta cooks.
  2. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions; drain, rinse in cold water and set aside.
  3. Blend all of the dressing ingredients until smooth.
  4. Place celery, carrots, red onion, red pepper, parsley and basil in a large bowl.
  5. Add the dressing and the cooked pasta to the bowl of herbs and veggies and stir until evenly mixed.
  6. Garnish with minced parsley and/or basil.

Raw Apple Crumble
This dessert is quicker and easier to make than an apple pie or crisp and requires no baking. Instead of refined sugar, this recipe uses dates for sweetness. Lemon juice and nutmeg give it a little extra zing.

Serves 4–6

½ cup walnut halves
2 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped

Apple Slices:
4 apples, peeled, sliced and diced (Gala, Fuji or Pink Lady)
1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 apples, peeled, sliced and diced (Gala, Fuji or Pink Lady)
2 tablespoons lemon juice (Meyer if possible)
5 Medjool dates, pitted
¼ cup raisins
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

  1. To make the topping, blend the walnuts and dates in a food processor until the mixture starts to stick together but is also still somewhat crumbly (pieces about the size of Grape Nuts). Spoon into a small bowl and set aside.
  2. For the slices: In a bowl, toss the 4 peeled, sliced and diced apples with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and set aside.
  3. To make the applesauce: In the food processor blend the apples, lemon juice, dates, raisins and spices. Toss this mixture with the apple slices.
  4. Place the apples (with sauce on them) into small dessert dishes and sprinkle with the date-nut topping.
Cathy Fisher is a recipe developer who advocates a healthy plant-based diet in her work as a cooking instructor at True North Health Center and the McDougall Program in Santa Rosa, Calif. She blogs at Read More
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