Try These Healthier Sides for Your Next Backyard Barbecue

Say goodbye to mayo-soaked coleslaw and gloopy potato salad

Photo: Aniko Hobel / Getty

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Summer is the season of cookouts, but if all your backyard get-togethers rely on the same boring–and often not-so-healthy–menu staples, it’s time to shake things up. These plant-based and lightened-up barbecue side dishes, drinks, and desserts will bring some freshness to the party, without feeling like you’re missing out on traditional favorites.

“Food triggers an emotional response for many of us, especially on holidays and family gatherings,” says April Dearden, a certified nutritionist, wellness coach and author of 8 Weeks to Your New Normal Lifestyle: A Journal for Building Healthy Habits (BookBaby, 2014). “There is a comfort and familiarity that comes with the food at these events. Swapping out fats and sugars for herbs and spices creates dishes that are healthy yet don’t leave us feeling deprived. My goal is to make dishes that look and feel like the original version but are so full of flavor that people won’t even know it’s healthy — because it’s just delicious.”

Below, Dearden shares her recipes for revamping your cookout.

Old: Mayo-Based Coleslaw ➪ New: Mango Slaw

The main ingredients of a good slaw are healthy — shaved cabbage, broccoli and carrots are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals – but then you go and mix in mayonnaise, which not only can add extra calories to your dish, but it also doesn’t keep well in the heat. No host wants to risk a guest becoming ill from one of their barbecue side dishes. Instead, mango slaw is made with a delicious vinaigrette. You’ll get a hint of sweet from the mango and a little heat from the jalapeño.


  • 1 bag pre-cut slaw with broccoli
  • 1 mango, cut into slices
  • ½ red onion, sliced thin
  • 1 jalapeño, sliced thin
  • ¼ cup cilantro, chopped


  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • Splash of water
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard


Place all salad ingredients into bowl. Pour dressing ingredients in small mason jar and shake. Then pour dressing over ingredients and toss. Let sit 10 to 20 minutes in refrigerator.

Old: Boring Iceberg Lettuce ➪ New: Colorful Kale Salad

Don’t be the person who tosses a bag of iceberg lettuce with some cucumbers and carrots, throws on some store-bought ranch dressing, and calls it a day. This festive red, white, and blue kale salad is loaded with nutrients from several superfoods. Kale’s antioxidant value is more than three times higher than iceberg lettuce. It’s high in vitamin K and iron. This anti-inflammatory also has cardiovascular benefits. Berries are another superfood that can help lower cholesterol, improve cardiovascular function, and reduce inflammation. Feta cheese is lower in fat and calories than other cheeses. The small amount used in this salad allows for a little creamy texture without adding tons of calories. (Feel free to leave out or swap for a dairy-free alternative.) Just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice lets all the natural flavors in this salad shine.


  • 4 cups kale, chopped
  • 2 cups strawberries
  • 2 cups blueberries
  • ½ cup feta cheese
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


Wash all produce under warm water. Pat dry with clean cloth. Remove spine from kale and chop into bite-size pieces. Remove stems from strawberries and cut in quarters. Crumble feta cheese. Add kale, strawberries, blueberries and feta to large bowl. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over salad. Sprinkle salt and pepper (to taste). Toss and serve.

Old: Store-Bought, Highly-Processed Barbecue Sauce ➪ New: Healthy, Homemade Sauce

Store-bought barbecue sauce often has preservatives, added sugar and hydrogenated oils. So take control of the ingredients and make your own in less than five minutes. This tangy sauce is sweetened with maple syrup. Be sure to use a high-quality maple syrup (not a pancake syrup, which is highly processed). Maple syrup is extracted from the tree and has been boiled down to concentrate the sugar. It has more nutrients than table sugar, and we’ll only use 1 tablespoon in the entire recipe. (Note: Traditional Worcester sauces often contain fish, so be sure to seek out one that’s marketed as vegan or check the ingredients list.)


  • 6-oz can tomato paste
  • ¾ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 1 tbsp vegan Worcester sauce
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup


Add all ingredients into medium bowl. Whisk together until well-combined. Coat your protein of choice and grill.

Old: Gloopy Potato Salad ➪ New: Grilled Sweet Potatoes

Potato salad is usually made with white potatoes – high in sugar and prone to spiking your blood sugar – and mayonnaise. Sweet potatoes, however, are lower on the glycemic index and are a superfood high in vitamin A, C, beta carotene, and fiber. Throw them on the grill for a few minutes, tossed with olive oil, and for a simple but refined barbecue side dish.


  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


Peel sweet potatoes. Using a mandolin or sharp knife, cut sweet potatoes into ¼-inch-thick wedges lengthwise to make ovals. Grill two to three minutes on each side until tender but not mushy. Remove from grill and toss with olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Old: Baked Beans ➪ New: Three-Bean Salad

Baked beans are a favorite barbecue side dish, but they are typically loaded with sugar. Swap baked beans for a delicious three-bean salad that’s high in fiber and protein. This recipe has an Asian flair, with hot Chinese mustard, sesame oil and ginger. Ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s amazing for your digestive system — it can help with nausea, regularity and cramps.


  • 15 ½-oz can black beans
  • 15 ½-oz can red beans
  • 15 ½-oz can garbanzo beans
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ⅓ cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp Chinese style hot mustard
  • 1 tsp dried Chinese ginger
  • 2 tsp liquid aminos
  • 2 tbsp water


Drain and rinse beans. Add to medium-size bowl. Finely chop scallions, including greens. Add to beans. In small jar with tight lid or bowl, combine all remaining ingredients. Shake or whisk together. Pour ⅔ of the dressing (or to taste) over beans and scallions. Toss with large spoon. Reserve any remain dressing in refrigerator for up to a week.

Old: Packaged Cookies ➪ New: Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies

Cookies full of refined sugar and white flour will gunk up your digestive system and lack nutritional value. Try swapping them our for these flourless peanut butter cookies. A natural peanut butter (read the labels and find one with no added sugar) is a good source of protein and healthy fat. Refined table sugar has been replaced with coconut sugar, which is lower on the glycemic index and has added nutrients that regular table sugar is lacking.


  • 1 cup natural peanut butter (or nut butter of choice)
  • 1 cup coconut sugar
  • 1 large egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Sea salt


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In medium bowl, mix peanut butter, coconut sugar, egg and vanilla until well-combined. Spoon 1 tablespoon of mixture about 1 inch apart onto ungreased baking sheet. Flatten mounds with tines of fork, making crosshatch pattern on cookies. Sprinkle with sea salt. Bake until golden brown around edges, about 15 minutes. Switch position of tray every five minutes. Transfer to cooling rack.

Old: Unremarkable Wine ➪ New: Prosecco Spritzers

This adult beverage is refreshing, low alcohol, and lower in calories and sugar than most drinks in the typical party cooler. Add in some fresh fruit and the juice of your favorite citrus for added flavor. Pour over ice and enjoy!


  • 1 bottle Prosecco
  • 16 oz unsweetened seltzer water (can be flavored)
  • Fresh-squeezed juice of 1 lemon, lime and orange
  • 1 cup Granny Smith apple
  • 1 cup frozen peaches
  • 1 cup seedless red grapes
  • fresh mint for garnish


Wash apples and grapes under warm water and pat dry with clean cloth. Core apple and cut into ¼-inch cubes. Add apples, grapes and frozen peaches to clear pitcher. Slowly pour Prosecco into pitcher. (If you tilt pitcher and pour Prosecco so it goes down the side of glass, it will keep bubbles from overflowing.) Add seltzer using the same technique as the Prosecco. Pour over ice and garnish with sprig of fresh mint.

From Oxygen

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