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Your guide to a better-for-you Memorial Day barbecue

Lighten up your holiday weekend cookout with this six-step plan.
Picnic Scene
Before you add those delicious burgers and sausages to the grill, give it a good cleaning.vgajic / Getty Images

You can feel it in the air. Everyone is just itching to enjoy the summer that we’ve all been waiting a year and a half for. Being outside is where it’s at and where we’ll be doing everything from exercising to socializing — and especially eating. So, fire up the grill and let’s get started!

You may be a little rusty on putting an outdoor spread together, so let’s begin with the basics. Any better-for-you barbecue is going to offer a mix of protein and vegetables, plus sides, desserts and drinks. Let’s break down the essentials:

1. Proteins

These days it’s safe to assume that your group of friends and family will likely include someone following a vegan diet, or simply a plant-based one. In addition to the chicken breasts, burgers and seafood, you’ll want to include plenty of meat-free options. These days there are loads of truly tasty options for meatless burgers, sausages and hot dogs. Just keep an eye on the sodium level, which can run high for some brands.

Before you add those delicious burgers and sausages to the grill, give it a good cleaning. Use a grill brush on your grates to remove any debris or excess carbon that can end up on your food. If you have time, you can remove the grates and give them a thorough wash with soap and water first.

Instead of slathering your chicken breasts or ribs with barbecue sauce, which can have up to 12 grams of sugar in a 2 tablespoon serving, try a flavorful marinade. You can marinate meat and vegetables for up to 2 hours before cooking. Try this beer-based one on chicken or shrimp. Place your ingredients in a baking dish or large zip-top plastic bag and refrigerate. Remember, you’ll want to discard the marinade after you’ve used it. Check out the USDA’s guide to safe summer grilling for proper internal temperatures for meat, poultry and seafood, and other safe food handling tips.

Beer-Marinated Grilled Chicken
Natalie Morales' Easy Grilled Chimichurri Soy Steak

2. Vegetables

Veggies are one of the easiest and most flavorful things to grill. You just don’t want to let them slip through the grilling grates, so you’ll want to secure them with skewers or use a grilling basket. Prep your vegetables by giving them a light brushing with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper before throwing them on the grill. Softer veggies, like peppers, onions and squash can be grilled over high heat for about a minute per side, or until tender. Harder vegetables, including corn and potatoes, should be cooked over lower heat for a longer period of time, so they cook evenly.

You can save time and grill the veggies in advance and simply heat them back up in the oven or in a basket on the grill. And here’s the best part — once your guests are gone, use the leftover grilled veggies to make an easy pasta dish, like Curtis Stone’s Orecchiette with Grilled Zucchini and Tomato.

Al's Grilled Vegetable Skewers
Grilled Asparagus
Grilled Corn Salad with Basil

3. Buns and condiments

Once you’ve grilled all those wonderful things, you’ll need some things to serve them with. It’s smart to offer a selection of regular and whole grain buns, as well as gluten-free offerings. And for guests who might need to limit carbs, you can offer a plate of lettuce wraps (Bibb and butter lettuce work best).

Place your ketchup, mustard, mayo, relish and other condiments on a small tray so guests can easily find them, and you can keep track of them. There are plenty of fabulous options now for lower sugar, lower sodium and artificial preservative-free condiments. We like the ones from Sir Kensington’s and True Made Foods. In a DIY mood? Try your hand at homemade ketchup.


4. Sides

It’s not summer unless you’ve got some slaw and potato salad! The great news is that these dishes can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat. If you like a more traditional potato salad, you’ll love the zesty flavors in Sunny Anderson’s Charred Onion Potato Salad. Not a mayo person? Make Al Roker’s light and bright Potato Salad with Lemon and Mint.

Slaw is the perfect accompaniment to everything on a hot summer day. Keep it cool and crunchy with Joy Bauer’s Mango-Cashew Coleslaw or go for this creamy, yet light Colorful Coleslaw from Ree Drummond.

If you have time to do some grilling before your guests arrive, try this Grilled Vegetable Pasta Salad from Chef Matt Abdoo. It’s incredibly flavorful and hearty, and if you skip the feta, it’s perfect for vegan guests.

Colorful Coleslaw
Grilled Vegetable Pasta Salad

5. Desserts

You may just want to step back to the grill, clean it off, and heat it up again for dessert. Grilled fruit is an absolute treat, requires no added sugar, and is amazing atop a slice of pound cake or paired with a dollop of whipped cream (only 15 calories!). Stone fruit — including peaches, apricots, nectarines and plums — shine on the grill. Choose ripe, but firm fruit for grilling. You can place the halved fruit on skewers or put them in a basket to prevent them from falling through the grates.

End your barbecue on a sweet note with this recipe for Pound Cake with Grilled Peaches and Salted Caramel Sauce. Save time and buy store bought pound cake, or just serve the grilled peaches over vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt. Sweet pineapple becomes caramelized and decadent when placed on the grill. Add a little sprinkle of brown sugar and cinnamon before grilling, and turn the fruit into a fabulous parfait, like these Grilled Pineapple and Ice Cream Parfaits.

And yes, you can grill avocados! The toughest part is finding ones that are ripe, but definitely not soft. The Hass Avocado Board recommends slicing the avocado in half, removing the pit and drizzling with lemon or lime juice. Then brush each half with a little olive oil and place cut side down on a grill for two to three minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper before serving. My personal recommendation would be to fill them with fresh berries for a colorful and delicious individual side dish — yum!

Grilled Pineapple and Ice Cream Parfaits

6. Drinks

With temperatures rising, it’s important to offer guests something hydrating while they’re dining al fresco, especially if they’re drinking alcohol. Since your refrigerator will likely be full, use an ice-filled cooler to keep a variety of cold drinks on hand.

Everyone loves a flavored sparkling water, like Spindrift or La Croix, but if you have time, it’s nice to mix up a few fun offerings. Strawberry-Basil Lemonade takes the traditional summer sipper and adds a bright pink hue from strawberries. Skip the vodka to keep it on the refreshing and kid-friendly side.

Iced tea is another summer staple to beat the heat. Skip the mixes and the sweetened varieties and make your own citrus-flavored version, like Martha Stewart’s Iced Red Tea. And if you want something even lighter, make a fruit-infused water by filling a large pitcher with water and adding rounds of lime, lemon or orange (be sure to wash the rind first), plus some fresh mint.

Martha Stewart's Iced Red Tea