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Diet blog: healthy barbecue choices

Judith Wills / 24 May 2019

It’s barbecue season but you’re on a diet - try these tips for delicious healthy options.

Healthy barbecue options
Lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit are all healthy BBQ options

Thanks to the fab weather most of us have been enjoying this past week or two, barbecues all across the land have been wheeled from the garage, dusted down and put into action.  And forecasts of a hot, dry summer mean that we’ll probably be grilling sausages and burgers outdoors many times in the months ahead.

Diana Henry’s tips for the perfect BBQ

But if you’re watching your waistline, what will this mean for you?

In truth, saying,“Barbecues are fattening” or  “Barbecues are ultra-healthy” or even ‘Barbecues are a great low-calorie meal” can all be true.

Just like what you decide to cook in your kitchen, the range of ideas for a tasty barbecue meal is vast, especially now that barbecue ranges have become so sophisticated.  They are indeed like an outdoor oven if you want them to be.  (I’m still sticking with our old charcoal-fired kettle version as what would Husband do without those half hours on the terrace, diligently trying not to produce charred remnants or dangerously undercooked pork?

How to cook with charcoal

If you cook well on your barbecue most foods can be classed in the ‘not-too-calorific and reasonably healthy’ group, I think. Steaks, burgers, chicken - the classic BBQ items - are all lowish fat, high protein, low carb and ideal sandwiched between a quality brioche or burger bun (or skip the bun if you are doing low-carb).  Add a classic leafy salad with a nice balsamic and olive oil dressing and you’ve got a meal you needn’t guilt-trip over.

Tips for a perfect BBQ steak

Pork sausages can be higher in calories and fat but, once in a while, they aren’t going to wreck any diet and you can always choose lower-fat versions such as venison or turkey. Meat, chicken, prawn or fish (monkfish is good because its texture means it won’t disintegrate when on the grill) kebabs – marinated perhaps in a tasty chilli and lime sauce – would be an excellent healthy choice. Use metal skewers or presoak your wooden ones thoroughly in water.

How to barbecue fish

You can even barbecue cheese – as long as it’s halloumi. One of the most delicious burgers you can eat is filled with slices of grilled mint halloumi, tomato and aubergine.

BBQ paneer tikka skewers

But as anyone who has spent ages in the kitchen making sides to accompany the Man Barbecue will know, it is the sides that are crucial, and it is probably the sides that add the most calories and less healthy elements to your meal.  Slaws and potato salads in a bath of full fat mayo come to mind, as do creamy dips.  Bowls of pasta and crisps, chips on the side and so forth are also culprits that will add hundreds of (unnecessary?) calories and many grams of fat.

Do you have a calorie blind spot?

But think of side salads based on raw or cooked veggies dressed in healthy oils and/or simply a good balsamic or lemon juice and you won’t go wrong.  And try a spicy tomato-based salsa for another delicious side.

Diana Henry’s salad tips and recipes

And talking of vegetables – of course, these don’t have to just be sides.  Take a leaf out of the vegan mantra and make veggies your main.  Ideas I’ve really enjoyed are some of the new ranges of veggie burgers that are packed with flavour and even a meaty hint, if you miss meat, and vegan sausages. Large mushrooms can be brushed with olive oil, seasoned and very lightly barbecued to make a wonderful burger filling, and of course everyone loves grilled sweetcorn. Or try sliced veggies tossed in oil and spices – e.g. red onion, courgettes, peppers, aubergines. Wrap them loosely in foil and cook at the side of the barbecue until tender. Open the foil towards the end of cooking time to give them a deep smoky flavour.

How to barbecue vegetables

Barbecued corn on the cob with pistachio-saffron butter

Cauliflower steaks – all the rage last year but they’ve gone a bit quiet this – are still truly delicious, fashionable or not, when seasoned then grilled or roasted until golden and tender. 

Grilled artichokes with curry mayonnaise

Most of us eat more protein than we need to, so don’t think a barbecue isn’t a barbecue without a huge hunk of protein.

Quick and easy veggie burgers

One less healthy aspect of barbecueing itself is that charred foods are linked to some types of cancer because charring produces carcinogenic compounds, so do try not to overcook and please don’t serve/eat food that is seriously burnt.  Another is the risk of undercooking – often meat that looks well barbecued on the outside may still be pink inside – and this could cause food poisoning.  Minced meats, including burgers and sausages, and all chicken should have no pink in them at all.

Top tips for barbecuing chicken safely

But by and large, my view is that a barbecue can be a beautiful and perfectly healthy thing.  All you need is a modicum of common sense when planning the barbecue menu, a bit of restraint on coming back for seconds, thirds or fourths – and a moderate glass of wine, of course, to set everything off to perfection.

Barbecued peaches with maple butter

Find all our barbecue recipes in one place


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.