Quick and Simple Tips for Portioning Your Plate at Summer BBQs

An expert dietitian shares her top tips for sticking to healthy eating habits at summer BBQs

Let’s face it: summer barbecues don’t make eating healthy easy. Of course, it’s OK to dig into less nutritious foods like hotdogs, ice cream and potato chips every now and then, but we definitely don’t want these types of foods to make regular appearances in our diets.

For many, though, barbecues are frequent events during the summer months, which is why finding a balance between enjoying the foods you love and keeping your healthy eating habits on track is the best strategy for success, especially if you have a health or fitness goal you’re working towards.

One of the best ways to find that balance is by learning how to portion your plate.

“In general, I would have to say the biggest nutritional mistake people make at summer barbecues is ‘overconsumption,’” says Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., director of nutrition training at Herbalife.  

“Barbecues are the perfect setup for taking in excess calories. Typically, they extend over several hours, you're enjoying drinks and socializing and food is served buffet style.  Alcoholic beverages add up calorie-wise, and they also stimulate your appetite.  And if you're hanging around the buffet table, it's just too easy to eat more than you need—or to lose track of how much you've had.”

No doubt, most of us are familiar with this type of situation. But by following a few simple tips, you can avoid overeating  while still enjoying the foods you love and having a good time.

Below, Bowerman shares her top tips for portioning your plate and eating healthy at barbecues and other summer social gatherings.

To Portion Your Plate:  
1. Look at all the offerings on the buffet table first so you can decide how you want to spend your calories.
2. Fill most of your plate with the lowest calorie items (grilled meats, veggies, tossed salads, fruits) and take smaller portions of the heavier items like creamy potato salads and cole slaws.
3. Grab a smaller appetizer-sized plate—you can't put nearly as much food on it.

To Control Appetizers:  
1. Again, look at all the offerings first, and decide what—and how much—you're going to have.  
2. Try to find the lowest calorie items and steer clear of chips and creamy/cheesy dips, cheeses in general, and fatty meats.  
3. Use the small plate, and once you've finished what's on it, toss the plate away and don't go back for seconds. Probably the most important thing to do is to step away from the buffet table. If you hang around all the food while you're talking to your friends, it's just too easy to pick up another egg roll—and several hundred more calories.  

Quick Tips:  
1. Alternate every calorie-laden alcoholic beverage or soda with a calorie-free drink, like water.
2. Don't arrive hungry. Have a snack that contains some protein and healthy carbs before you head out (like a carton of yogurt, or some baby carrots with hummus).
3. Have an idea in mind of what you'll eat. Barbecue food is pretty standard—grilled meats (if they're not too fatty) are safe and, since it's summer, fruits and vegetables are usually available.
4. Remember that you're there primarily to celebrate summer and enjoy time with friends—not to eat until you can hardly move. 

More Reading:
8 Quick Tips for Eating Healthy When Dining Out
Healthy BBQ Alternatives that Won't Destroy Your Diet
Easy Ways to Eat More Veggies at Every Meal