The backyard barbecue is all about lingering in good company, showing off your pitmaster skills, maybe even busting out that skin-baring outfit you put in extra time at the gym to fit into.
It also is a time for indulging — or overindulging. Your friend’s margaritas are dangerously delicious when it’s 85 degrees out. You can’t have a burger without a few scoops of old-school, mayo-drenched potato salad on the side. And who can turn down a s’more or three?
You’re only human. Research has shown we eat more in social situations than when we’re alone — up to 96 percent more when we’re around seven or more people, psychologist John M. de Castro, a foremost expert on human eating habits, concluded in a 1992 study.
“An increased amount is eaten at meals with familiar and friendly people because they can help make a meal relaxing, more enjoyable and long. These meals can also reduce an individual’s ability or motivation to monitor consumption,” said Cornell University professor Brian Wansink in a 2004 report on environmental factors that affect how much people eat.
And guys, you might want to listen up: A 2016 study by Wansink and his team at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab found that men are particularly prone to overeating in the company of others, perhaps as a way to “show off,” the researchers said.
But with some strategizing, you can navigate the summer party season healthfully, starting before you leave the house.
Don’t come hungry
You know how when you shop for groceries on an empty stomach, you end up buying food you didn’t intend to?
The same thing is bound to happen if you go a party hungry, says Jennifer Gibson, head of nutrition and coaching at Vida Health, a personalized health and wellness app. Eat a snack beforehand, something with a little protein, fiber and healthy fats to tide you over so you don’t overdo it at the event. (And if it’s a party with skimpy offerings, at least you’ll have eaten something.)
“It’s a strategy we use a lot during the holidays, but it can be for anytime,” Gibson says.
Be a good guest
Offer to bring a dish. It’s a win-win. You’ll help the host and have something you, and others, will feel good eating.
Two of Gibson’s favorites that go over well with a crowd are potato salad with shaved carrots, bell peppers and Greek yogurt subbing for mayonnaise, and a watermelon-feta salad with mint and a balsamic drizzle.
Or offer to bring fixings for festive but lightened-up cocktails, says Chicago-based registered dietitian Sara Haas. Instead of margaritas from a mix, pick a good tequila, squeeze a bunch of fresh limes, and make a simple syrup. With just enough of that syrup, it’s refreshing but not cloyingly sweet like the pre-made version.
Speaking of adult beverages, the tendency is to head straight for them if the festivities begin while the sun is still high.
“[Drinks] can be a calorie nightmare,” not to mention the possibility of having one too many, says Haas, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Light beer contains less alcohol and fewer calories. Wine is an okay choice—even better if you make it a spritzer with club soda. It’s the daquiris and other sweetened cocktails you have to watch. They’re highly quaffable and high in calories.
If you just can’t say no to rum punch, drink it alongside a glass of water. “For every sip of alcohol, take another sip of water, because that will slow you down and keep you hydrated,” Haas says. “And put the drink down. Don’t physically hold it the whole time, because if it’s in your hand, you’re more likely to keep drinking it.”
Time to eat
If you want to sample everything, go for it but be mindful of portion size, Haas and Gibson agree. A half-cup of a calorie-heavy dish like potato salad should do it.
But if exercising restraint is your weakness, circle the buffet first to scope out the offerings, then decide which dishes you can pass up, says Gibson. Grilled chicken is a wiser choice than bratwurst; ditto for tortilla chips and guacamole or hummus and crudités instead of potato chips.
Take note of the plate size — studies show the bigger the plate, the more food we pile on it — and remember that you don’t have to fill every inch, as we also tend to do when we serve ourselves.
Hot dogs, burgers, and ribs are typical main-course fare, but don’t make meat the focus of your plate, says Haas. Split a bratwurst with someone and fill in the gaps with vegetable-heavy side dishes and fruit. There’s bound to be guilt-free watermelon and corn on the cob.
And check out the relish tray. You might cobble together a meal from it. “There’s bound to be some vegetables there, even if it’s just the toppings for the burgers,” says Haas. “Put down a bed of tomato, onion and lettuce first, then the macaroni salad on top. You’re getting what you want but being smart about it. I’ve been to parties where the toppings look better than the rest.”
It’s hard to pass up peach cobbler, harder still if there are brownies and cookies, too.
Again, recognize your threshold for restraint and sample a little of each—emphasis on little—or be selective.
“If I’m going to go for dessert, I’m going to make sure it’s worth the calories,” says Gibson.
“Be the obnoxious person who cuts the cupcake in half,” says Haas.
And when you’re done eating? Dance, play cornhole, chase the kids, anything to get moving. It is a party, after all.
Janet Rausa Fuller is a local freelance writer.
SOME HEALTHIER BARBECUE MEAL OPTIONS
Veggie-Loaded Pasta Salad (courtesy of Sara Haas)
Makes 8 servings
1 pound whole wheat (or other whole-grain or gluten-free) radiatore pasta
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, minded
1 to 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
For the salad:
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained, rinsed and chopped
3 cups baby spinach, sliced thin
1 cup chopped red, yellow or orange bell pepper
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Freshly cracked black pepper
Cook pasta according to package directions. Once cooked, drain and rinse under cool water. Drain thoroughly and spread out on a baking sheet to dry while you make the dressing.
Whisk together mustard, vinegar, garlic and Italian seasoning. Once combined, whisk in the olive oil. Add the cooled, cooked pasta to the bowl with the dressing along with artichoke hearts, spinach, bell pepper, carrots and Parmesan cheese. Toss to combine. Season with kosher salt and black pepper to taste.
Slow Cooker BBQ Chicken (courtesy of Sara Haas)
Makes 6 servings
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed black pepper
For the chicken:
1/2 white or yellow onion, sliced (about 1 1/2 cups sliced)
1 to 2 heads garlic, smashed
12 fluid ounces beer, pale ale preferred
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
¼ to 1/3 cup ketchup (add up to 1/3 cup for additional sweetness, if desired)
For the slaw (optional):
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 head purple cabbage, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno, thinly sliced
Combine all rub ingredients in a small bowl and mix with a fork until well combined.
For the chicken: Place onions and garlic in the bottom of the slow cooker. Rub the spices all over the chicken breasts, then place on top of onions and garlic. Pour beer around the chicken (avoiding pouring directly on top) and cover with the lid. Turn the heat to low and cook for 6 to 8 hours.
Drain and discard 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Using two forks, shred the chicken (this can be done inside the slow cooker). Stir in the vinegar and ketchup. Enjoy or cook another 30 to 45 minutes to meld flavors.
For the optional slaw: Combine yogurt, lime juice and zest and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the cabbage and jalapeño and toss to combine.
Serve the chicken on whole-grain buns with slaw, in tortillas or on top of salads or pasta.