Barbeques, cookouts, and summer parties are in full swing with the warmer weather. This is a great opportunity to bring your healthy eating and living into this part of your life, not just when you’re at home. Rather than view the parties as cheat days, view them as more ways to put your lifestyle into practice and share it with friends and family.
With a few tweaks and upgrades, you can easily host a delicious and satisfying summer party that is also good for your health goals. Even if you’re not hosting, you can share nourishing dishes with your friends and family, and eat well at the same time.
When it comes to eating cleaner and upgrading your summer party dishes, it comes down to two major things: food choices and food quality. Changing the food choices can mean choosing more nutrient-dense foods, adding in more fruits and vegetables, or cutting out overly processed and refined foods from your menus. Food quality can mean choosing cleaner versions of processed foods, going with organic or non-spray produce and foods, or upgrading to organic, grass-fed or sustainably-caught meat, fish or poultry.
The following are more specific upgrades you can do for your summer parties, broken down by course. Some address food choices, others focus on upgrading the food quality, and some have both.
A big staple at most summer parties, dips, chips and snacks can easily be a place to overindulge. It can also be an easy place to upgrade and start your party off on a healthy foot.
Chips: Whether it’s tortilla or potato chips, there are a number of cleaner alternatives you can bring or set out at your next party. If you’re going with tortilla chips, look for organic, non-gmo corn. You can also try grain-free tortilla chips. These are usually made of cassava flour, chia, coconut flour, or almond flour.
If you’re more of a potato chip person, look for chips cooked with coconut oil instead of a hydrogenated or other vegetable oil. You can also find sweet potato chips as well, which could be a great option if you’ve got white potatoes in other dishes. If you want to skip chips altogether, swap them out with raw veggies that can hold up to dipping. Carrots, bell peppers, endive, cauliflower and broccoli florets, snap peas, green beans, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchinis are all great vegetables for dipping. So many of these are in season right now, which means they’ll be at their best tasting and most affordable.
Dips: Dips are very easy to upgrade and make healthier. You can make your own dips, which will take out any unwanted additives or preservatives. Hummus, other bean dips, baba ganoush, and salsas are easy to make and find organic ingredients for. Stick to dips that are produce or bean-based for your cleanest options.
Deviled Eggs: For a protein-packed appetizer, make some deviled eggs. There are infinite ways to make a deviled eggs clean and healthy. You can add avocado or beets into the egg yolk mixture, add in fresh herbs, sprinkle grass fed bacon or sauerkraut. When buying your eggs, upgrade the eggs to be organic and pasture-raised if possible. These eggs will have higher nutrients, taste better, and support better animal husbandry than your regular eggs.
Summer parties often mean lots of potlucks, where side dishes are king. There are an infinite amount of side dishes you can make and bring that are clean and healthy. Focus on produce heavy dishes with organic, minimally processed ingredients and you can’t go wrong.
Pasta Salad: A very popular dish for hot days, pasta salad is easy to upgrade to a healthier version. Start by swapping out the pasta. Look for whole wheat varieties that are less refined. If you’re serving anyone with a gluten allergy or sensitivity, try using pasta made with chickpea flour or other gluten-free variety with minimal gums and additives instead.
If you’re serving a paleo crowd, swap out the grains for noodles that you can make with zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes or beets. You can use a mandoline, spiralizer, or a julienne peeler to make these noodles. They work well raw, quickly roasted or sauteed.
If the pasta salad has a dressing, you can upgrade that as well. You can also swap the mayo out with a grass-fed, organic, full-fat plain traditional or Greek yogurt. Go with traditional if you want a thinner sauce, or Greek if you want it to be thicker.
Coleslaw: Another classic summer dish, coleslaw is another dish that can easily be upgraded. Add in more shredded veggies to your coleslaw. Add in two kinds of cabbage, carrots, celery, add additional herbs, apples or raisins or cranberries for a little bit of sweetness. Make the star the vegetables rather than the dressing. Upgrade your mayo to the higher quality mayo; try using a little less mayo, or swap it out with the grass-fed yogurt also mentioned above.
Salads: When in doubt, bring a salad. Any party can always use more raw, fresh vegetables. Choose organic salad greens of any kind and add in your favorite organic veggies. There are so many great vegetables in season right now that you can add as well. You can roast some and leave others raw. Make sure you chop up your added veggies to be easily bite-sized. Instead of croutons, you can add raw nuts or seeds, or roasted chickpeas for a nice crunch. Julienned carrots also provide a great crunch to any salad. You can make a simple olive oil and balsamic dressing on the side so people can dress their salad how they like.
Potato salad: You can bring the color (and additional phytonutrients) by using different colored potatoes, like purple or red potatoes. If there are already potatoes somewhere else on the menu, consider swapping out regular potatoes for sweet potatoes, which also come in a few colors. Similar to the coleslaw and pasta salad, you can upgrade your mayo, swap it out for yogurt, and try using less. If you’ve got friends that can’t handle dairy, you can make a sauce using soaked cashews or macadamia nuts to add in some creaminess. Regardless of if you used potatoes or sweet potatoes, both pair so well with fresh herbs. This can bring the flavor without needing a creamy dressing.
Grilled Veggies: If you want the ultimate simple and healthy side, grill up some veggies. For vegetables, you cut into long strips like eggplant, summer squashes, zucchini and bell peppers roast 5-6 minutes on each side. For spear-like veggies like green beans, broccolini and asparagus, grill 2-3 minutes each size.
For mushrooms, leaves (like kale and collards) and halved heads of romaine lettuce, go with 3-4 minutes on each side. For sliced onions, fennel, sweet potatoes or carrots, go with 6-7 minutes on each side.
Mashed Potatoes: If your barbeque isn’t complete without some mashed potatoes, try replacing the potatoes with another veggie. Cauliflower, sweet potato, turnip, beets, carrots, parsnips, Butternut squash or rutabaga can all be great substitutes.
A summer party isn’t complete without a wide array of condiments to dress your meal. You can upgrade all of these easily to healthy and clean versions.
Barbeque sauce: Store-bought or traditional barbeque sauces can be loaded with preservatives, additives, and a lot of refined sugars. Make your own barbeque sauces with minimal and clean ingredients to make sure you know what you’re eating. When you’re looking for barbeque sauce recipes, try adding “paleo” in your search to improve your chances of getting a cleaner sauce. If you would still rather buy the sauce, there are some paleo varieties that will have less sugar and less refined ingredients.
Ketchup and Mustard: If you’re doing hot dogs, burgers or sausages, you’ve got a chance to upgrade your toppings. Look for condiments that are organic whenever possible and minimally processed. If you’re looking for ketchup, look for low-sugar varieties, since most conventional ketchup is very high in sugar.
Mayonnaise: If you’re using mayonnaise for burgers or in any recipe, buy a cleaner variety that’s made with avocado or olive oil rather than canola or vegetable oils. Organic mayonnaises can have better quality eggs as well, which are a big part of good mayo.
Sauerkraut and Fermented Veggies: Instead of sugar-laden relishes or normal pickles, you can update your vegetable condiments to sauerkraut or other fermented veggies.
Lacto-fermented pickles, carrots, and jalapenos make great toppings and are loaded with probiotics that help your gut flora and immunity. When looking for a sauerkraut or fermented veggies, make sure you buy them from a refrigerator case and that they haven’t been pasteurized.
Finally, we’ve got to the stars of the show, the main dishes. With a few small upgrades here and there, you can boost the nutrient density your meal.
Meat: If you’re grilling up meat of any kind, whether it’s just cut or in a tube form, upgrade the quality of your meat. The best of the best for land animals is grass fed and pasture-raised. If that’s out of your price range, look for organic varieties that have increased access to the outdoors. Some grocery stores like Whole Foods make that information readily available.
If need be, ask your butcher where the animal comes from. If you’re grilling fish, get the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to see what fish are the most sustainable, low in mercury, and humanely caught.
Vegetarian Mains: If you’re cooking vegetarian dogs or burgers, buy soy-free varieties to prevent any hormonal imbalances. You can make burger patties that are bean or vegetable based. If you’re not doing burgers or dogs, you can grill heartier vegetables like cauliflower steaks, sweet potatoes, eggplant, butternut squash, or portobello mushrooms. You can also dress them with pestos, chimichurri, or nut-based cream sauces.
Bread: If you’re going with burgers or dogs, consider upgrading your hamburger and hot dog buns too. You can chose and organic whole wheat variety that’s minimally processed and low in sugars. You can also ditch the bread all together and wrap your burger in lettuce leaves or enjoy the patty over a bowl of salad greens. You can enjoy your hot dog bunless over greens as well or just by itself. Quickly blanched collard greens also make a great wrap that you can use as a bun replacement as well.
There are a lot of different upgrades to your summer party dishes at every stage of the meal. Choose the ones that resonate with you or pique your curiosity. Try adding one or two to your next party and see how you and your guests like them. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to try any of these upgrades as summer goes on or if you entertain later in the year.
Consider trying some that feel uncomfortable as well to see if having a meal without grains or a certain favorite food was really as bad as you thought it was going to be.
Whatever upgrades you decide to choose, use minimally processed foods that were raised well as your guide for what you cook and have fun. Parties are made better with great food, but they’re also about having fun. Choose when you want some indulgences and where you want to bring in some upgrades. Keep it balanced and enjoy.
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
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