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How to throw a healthy summer party: Tips from UCLA Health

Summer is the perfect time to heat up the grill and gather with friends and family. Two dietitians at UCLA Health – Erin Morse and Dana Hunnes – share their tips on how to host a healthy cookout without putting a damper on the festivities.

Use the grill for plant-based options rather than meats

“Grills aren’t just for meats,” says Morse, who is chief clinical dietitian at UCLA Health. “Instead of throwing hamburger patties or hot dogs on the grill, try hearty vegetables like portobello mushrooms or cauliflower steaks.”

She also recommends grilling veggie skewers by stacking zucchini, bell pepper, mushrooms, onion, and even pineapple.

Beef burgers are a staple of barbecues, and some guests may feel the holiday is incomplete without them. Hunnes, a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, says plant-based burgers are a much healthier alternative to meat.

“There are so many different veggie burgers on the market now that surely there’s one to fit everyone’s taste preferences,” says Hunnes. For those who really can’t do without meat, chicken and turkey are healthier options – for our bodies and the environment.

Keep the alcohol at bay

Solo cups and outdoor dining may go together hand-in-hand, but that doesn’t mean going overboard with the alcohol.

Lighter alcohol options, like a wine-cooler, are healthier than some other options, like a full-calorie beer. Partygoers should also be aware of the dangers of mixing alcohol and the sun.

“If you choose to drink alcohol, you need to make sure you and your guests are hydrating,” says Hunnes. Have a non-alcoholic drink on hand and alternate drinking from it. Provide your guests with fun non-alcoholic drink options, including sparkling waters and fruit-infused waters.

Try healthier, homemade condiments

For salad dressing, Morse recommends creating your own. “Take a blender and blend olive oil, vinegar, mustard, maple syrup, and a fresh garlic clove. You’ll have a dressing that’s both delicious and a lot healthier than a pre-made dressing from the store.”

Get creative with side dishes

Typical side dishes, like macaroni salad and potato salad, can be heavy and packed with calories, says Hunnes. She suggests serving guacamole and hummus as side dishes. Both have higher fiber and fewer calories while still being filling.

If potato salad stays on the menu, make a vinegar-based version. Ditching the mayo will also help protect the food against quick spoilage.

Keep the foods colorful

“There are tons of ways to brighten up the food you’re serving without buying a cake with colorful frosting,” said Hunnes. She suggests making sure the colors in your food are coming from natural ingredients and not from food dyes. A diverse array of fruits and vegetables will add a splash of color to your party.

Morse says you can even put fruit such as watermelon, apricots, plums or peaches on the grill for a short time. They’ll not only add color to the party, but they’ll serve as healthy dessert options as well.

Finally, consider the environment: Recycle plastic plates and flatware if you use them, or better yet, try compostable and renewable options made of bamboo or paper.

Adapted from an article by Ryan Hatoum for UCLA Health Connect.

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