What Does a Registered Dietitian Bring to a BBQ Cookout?

What Does a Registered Dietitian Bring to a BBQ Cookout?

Brierley Horton, M.S., RD is a dietitian nutritionist, content creator and strategist, and avid mental health advocate. She is co-host and co-creator of the Happy Eating podcast, which breaks down the connection between food and mental wellness.

When I tell people at a barbecue that I’m a registered dietitian, one of two things almost inevitably happens: Folks either ask me what I eat in a day or they kindly instruct me not to judge their choices as they build their plate. I do this dance at almost any party involving food, but the nature of a cookout and the variety of dishes served seems to solicit this kind of conversation particularly. 

Now, there are days when I skip the healthier BBQ dishes and go straight for the hot dogs and homemade desserts. But the summer season is long, and—well—my body doesn’t feel good when I do that all summer long. 

So how do I eat healthy (or healthy-ish) at a barbecue—and what do I bring to a barbecue? First, I go down the cookout buffet line after as many guests as possible so I can go heavier on the summer sides I really want to eat and skip the ones that aren’t as enticing (no peer pressure!). I’m that person that throws extra lettuce and tomato on my burger. I load up on the bean salad or coleslaw or both and usually skip the chips. Going at the end also solicits less color commentary from the peanut gallery. 

Second, I always make a point to bring a healthy BBQ side that I truly enjoy eating. This guarantees that I’ll be able to balance out my plate, and most folks appreciate seeing something a little bit healthy on the table (even if they don’t eat it). Here’s what those healthy sides and other recipe ideas look like for me: 

Black Bean Veggie Burgers
Black Bean Veggie Burger

I already admitted to my hot dog habit. And while I also appreciate a creative take on a hamburger, going meatless with my main at a cookout is a favorite of mine. That being said, I don’t do tofu dogs (though I’m open to you convincing me otherwise!) but I love a good black bean burger. And let me tell you—this one delivers! I also like that these are just as delicious when they’re made in a pan because sometimes a BBQ gets rained out, or there isn’t enough room on the grill alongside the hamburgers or chicken breasts

Street Corn SaladStreet Corn Salad

Ask my friends what side I usually bring to a barbeque, and they’ll all say a salad. In fact, they usually ask me to contribute a salad (I think they think I’m a one-trick pony). What I love about this street corn salad is that it can appeal to salad enthusiasts and skeptics. How? The grilled corn, of course, and creamy dressing! 

Garden Veggie and Pita BoardGarden Veggie and Pita Board

If kids are also in attendance—and I’m on salad duty for the adults—I’ll usually pull together a vegetable board for the kids (which can also appeal to the salad skeptics). Why? Because I want my kids to get some veggies in, too, and only one of mine will eat a salad. And I’ve found over the years that I almost always come home with a little leftover salad and I never come home with leftover sliced veggies.

Southwestern Stuffed Peppers with CheddarSouthwest Stuffed Peppers with Cheddar

This is another meatless option that doubles as a hearty BBQ side dish. The best part is that it can be assembled ahead of time and quickly finished at the host’s house.

Grilled RomaineGrilled Romaine
This salad on its own—grilled Romaine hearts plus some cheddar cheese and a light lemon and olive oil dressing—is a summer staple for me. I’d absolutely serve this as a healthy cookout side when I’m hosting. But it could easily come across as a little too healthy or even bland if I were to bring it as a guest at a cookout. Still, I recommend using the recipe as a base for a salad and then throwing in some favorite salad toppings like fresh tomatoes, grilled corn, or cubed avocado. You could get a little bolder even and add sliced peaches or plums instead of veggies.


In the end, barbecues are all about enjoying good company and good food, and there’s always a way to balance indulgence with health. And by bringing nourishing dishes you love, you can enjoy the best of both worlds. So save these tips for your next cookout, savor the moments with friends and the delicious variety on your plate.

Whether you’re reaching for a black bean burger or a serving of street corn salad, remember that health choices can be both satisfying and delicious. Happy grilling!

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