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6 Delicious Labor Day Food Ideas You Can Enjoy Without The Guilt

Happy Labor Day weekend everybody! The unofficial end to summer is right around the corner and hopefully you are hosting or barbecueattending a party to celebrate the occasion. The only trouble with these types of celebrations, is that they tend to be full of delicious food that isn’t necessarily good for the ol’ waistline. With the holiday coming up, I wanted to offer some Labor Day food ideas that are delicious and healthy (yes, it is possible) to make sure we don’t completely undo all the work and progress we have made throughout the summer.

You work hard in your home gym, you try to eat healthy during the week, you want to enjoy yourself on the holiday weekend coming up…I understand, I hear ya, I really do. Problem is, a weekend full of eating and drinking all that good stuff can undo a week’s worth of work. It’s not fair. Believe me, I agree, you are preaching to the choir! If I had a dollar for every time I had lost and gained the same 5 lb, I would have… a lot of dollars.

Anybody that has tried to lose weight understands the power of eating. A couple of rules I have learned from experience are: 1) it is much easier to maintain a weight than lose weight, and 2) it’s a lot harder to burn calories than it is to avoid those calories to begin with. I can eat 300 calories worth of food in about 10 sec…I would have to run about 2 miles to burn that same 300 calories… life just ain’t fair.

But, that’s life. We don’t make the rules, we just have to learn to live with them. If you are currently trying to lose weight, I think I can help you with the upcoming holiday. Healthy eating doesn’t always have to be difficult. If you are like me, Labor Day normally means grilling. Grilling is a great way to cook healthy food! With a few smart choices, you can still enjoy yourself this Labor Day without completely de-railing your diet. Let’s get started!

Grilling Is A Healthy Way To Cook

My favorite part of summer is the grilling. Granted, I grill at least 9 months out of the year (Virginia has become surprisingly mild during the winter), but summer especially is my favorite time to cook outside. Burgers, hot dogs, steaks…so much delicious stuff to grill! Sorry, of course there is also vegetables…vegetables like to be grilled too… Anyway, if you are grilling all these fatty meats, at least the cooking method is healthy.

When you grill a piece of meat, some of the fat is lost. Think about it, when you cook a hamburger in a skillet, the meat is basically basting in it’s own fat while it cooks. Not to mention if you throw down a little oil in the pan to begin with. When you grill, this fat is lost because it falls down between the grates of the grill. An instant decrease in calories!

If you combine the healthy mode of cooking with a healthier protein to begin with, than you are really making a difference your body will thank you for. When I say healthier protein, think white meat instead of red… think skinless instead of skin… think vegetarian options if you are truly hardcore.

Vegetables can be grilled too.  And they are delicious when prepare on the grill. A couple of easy options that we use at my house all the time include squash, bell peppers, asparagus, zucchini, corn on the cob. When in doubt, take your vegetable and toss it in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss on the grill until you have grill marks. Easy enough and tastes great.

Let’s look at a few examples…

Grilled Proteins

I’m not going to lie, at our Labor Day cookouts we are typically eating hot dogs and hamburgers. The hamburgers are usually 80/20 (80% lean, 20% fat) because they make the best burgers. As I get older, I appreciate the need to eat a little healthier and this summer I have made a conscious effort to reduce my intake of red meat in general. Red meat, which includes beef of course, is typically frowned upon because of it’s saturated fat content and it’s alleged effect on cholesterol levels (raising LDL’s, the bad cholesterol). Which in turn, increases our chances of developing heart disease. I’m not a dietician or a nutritionist, and I know there is a debate out there regarding red meat and these claims…but I tend to believe that it’s a good idea to limit red meat for heart health…that’s all I’m gonna say…you can make up your own mind.

So, if I am trying to reduce my intake of beef, I have to find other proteins to grill. Here are a few healthier options that turn out great.

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs

chicken thighsOne of my favorite, go-to proteins for grilling! I like to grill them bbq style, but however you decide to cook them, you will not be disappointed. Richer in flavor, more tender, and easier to cook than chicken breasts. Let’s compare this piece of meat to a couple of other options to see how you can do yourself a favor by choosing boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Check out a post I did earlier for some nice recipes: Healthy Chicken Thigh Recipes That Won’t Ruin Your Diet

  • Calories in boneless, skinless chicken thighs = 130 per 4 oz (quarter pound)
  • Calories in 1 skin-on chicken wing = 60 calories (for 1 wing!!)
  • Calories in 80/20 ground beef = 284 per 4 oz

And guys, I’m just comparing total calorie count. For this example, I’m not even considering saturated fat or cholesterol. A quarter pound of chicken thighs is less than half the calories of a quarter pound burger…and that is not counting the bun or cheese.

  • A plain, grilled cheeseburger on a bun = roughly 500 calories (284 for beef + 120 for bun + 100 for cheese)
  • A plain, grilled hot dog on a bun = roughly 270 calories (150 for hot dog, + 120 for bun)

These numbers are just estimates. All hot dogs are different. Personally, I like the angus beef bun length from Ball Park (by the way, why aren’t all hot dogs “bun length”… does anyone prefer a shorter dog, of course not!). Those franks are actually 170 calories each, or about 300 calories including bun. The mustard and ketchup calories are pretty negligible, so don’t worry.

Turkey Chops

I’m not a big fan of turkey burgers, the consistency feels weird to me. I don’t want to try and make turkey taste or feel like a beef turkey chopburger. Sorry turkey, you lose that battle every time! Instead, I prefer to grill turkey chops and dress them like a burger…on a bun with lettuce and tomato, maybe provolone cheese, and a little mayo. Delicious fresh off the grill! If you haven’t tried this one, you need to! Makes an awesome sandwich. Here are the numbers if you need some convincing:

  • Calories in lean turkey chop = 110 per 4 oz

Yeah, that’s right. Not to mention, these chops are almost fat free (like 1 gram of fat per 4 oz). Make a sandwich out of it, and you are looking at about 330 calories. That’s 170 calories less than the typical cheeseburger…just saying. At that rate, go ahead and have 2, still significantly less calories than a cheeseburger and a hot dog (660 calories vs 770 calories…did I mention that I like math?).

Turkey Kielbasa

My mother-in-law is a kielbasa fiend. She loves it. I do too, hard not to love. It’s a delicious sausage that you can toss on the grill for a few min and done. Sometimes I try to switch out the standard pork kielbasa for a turkey kielbasa to trick her…she’s pretty good, she can normally tell the difference, but she still likes the turkey version. It does taste lighter, and that’s for good reason:

  • Calories in average, pork and beef kielbasa = 250 per 4 oz
  • Calories in turkey kielbasa = 180 per 4 oz

Turkey kielbasa tastes lighter, but sometimes I actually prefer it. It’s not as rich. I can’t eat much real kielbasa because it just tastes “heavy”. The turkey version is great, lighter, doesn’t slow ya down as much. Again, I’m only looking at calories, this version will save you a lot in total fat count as well.

Throw a turkey kielbasa on a hot grill, grill it for a few min on each side until the skin starts to break open. Take it off and slice it in half-once slices and serve with yellow mustard. Your guests won’t complain, I promise!

Let’s Talk Sides

If your BBQ is anything like mine, you have your burgers and dogs, but then there are the sides. Chips, potato salad, baked beans, deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese… the list goes on. Point is, most of theses sides have something (ok, 2 things) in common: they are fattening and they are delicious.

If we are being smart and making good choices with our proteins, we might as well be smart and make smart choices with our sides as well. A few quick pointers about sides and then we will discuss a few smart alternatives.

Most “salads” are not good for you. Potato salad, pasta salad, egg salad…they tend to be mayonnaise based and mayonnaise is not good for you. Mayo has over 90 calories and about 10g of fat per tablespoon! If your salad is not vegetable based, odds are you should avoid it.

With a few smart choices however, you can provide your guests and yourself some delicious sides that will provide some nutritional value.

Potato Salad (Without the Mayo)

Take the mayo out of potato salad and make mustard the star. It can save you some calories and still taste delicious. Cutting may out of the recipe will save you roughly 100 calories per serving. Here are a few numbers for ya:

  • Calories in typical potato salad (mayo based) = 350 per cup
  • Calories in typical mustard based potato salad = 270 per cup

I like the idea of using Greek yogurt instead of mayo. Adds protein, reduces fat. Similar consistency. Here is a nice recipe for a healthy potato salad using Greek yogurt instead of mayo: Healthy Potato Salad

Here is another option, no yogurt, more mustard based: Herbed Red Potato Salad

Baked Beans

Your average, out of the can baked beans actually aren’t all that bad if you ask me. Yes, they do pack a lot of calories, but they also pack a lot of protein and fiber. That said, if we are really trying to be good this Labor Day, we can do a little better. If you are hosting a party, come on, switch it up a little and your guests will be so impressed. Tip: blacks beans are delicious, easy to cook with, and incredibly healthy. A few stats for ya first though:

  • Calories in regular canned baked beans (Bushes) = 280 per cup
  • Calories in a cup of canned black beans = 230 per cup

A 50 calorie difference for switching a can of baked beans for a can of black beans. But I agree, plain black beans won’t exactly make you the most beloved host (boring!). Check out this healthy bean salad I found online that tastes great and is easy on the calories (245 cal per cup): Roasted corn, black bean, and mango salad

Quinoa Salad

Quinoa is always a good option! So good for your. High in fiber, high in protein, easy to cook with. I just spent 2 weeks on a vegan diet and believe me, quinoa came in handy. It’s a nice, healthier substitute for rice. Really, you can take any rice recipe and substitute quinoa and you instantly make it significantly healthier. I like the quinoa salads that are prepared with black beans and corn in kind of a Mexican style.

  • Calories in typical pasta salad = 350 per cup
  • Calories in quinoa and black bean salad = 250 per cup

Yup, just saved you 100 calories per serving, you’re welcome. I love pasta salad, but let’s face it, we know this is not good for us. Your average pasta salad is full of calories. Maybe you made the effort to make it out of whole grain or veggie pasta, but let’s be honest, you probably didn’t. Quinoa is healthy and tastes great. Here is an awesome recipe that I have made twice now and it couldn’t be easier:  Quinoa and Black Beans .

Putting It All Together

We’ve discussed a few easy changes that can make your BBQ significantly healthier. 3 proteins and 3 sides. The easy switch from beef to poultry will save you hundreds of calories. And let’s face it, everybody expects burgers and dogs. When you bring out turkey chops or a turkey kielbasa, you will be rewarded with praise!

Different is good. People, whether they know it or not, get tired of the same old same old. But, you could always play it safe and offer a traditional option and a healthier option. We have done that before. Offer traditional burgers AND skinless chicken thighs…see which one you run out of first… Try burgers AND turkey kielbasa. Your guests will enjoy the options and probably won’t notice that they are eating healthier options.

With sides, we discussed a few easy switches. Avoid the mayo based salads and instead opt for something a little more nutritious. Anything with quinoa or black beans will probably be healthy. Mayonnaise bad, mustard or olive oil good.

A few more tips to help keep your gathering a little healthier:

  • Always have a veggie tray for snacking
  • Always have a fruit plate
  • Pretzels are a nice alternative to fattier chips
  • Hummus is a nice alternative for dipping veggies or chips
  • If you don’t like chicken or turkey, try veggie burgers
  • There’s only 96 calories in a Miller Lite

I hope this article inspired you to make your Labor Day BBQ a little healthier. A couple of easy changes can save you a lot of calories. If there are any questions, leave a comment and I will get back to you soon. If you have any of your own healthy go to recipes for holiday parties, please share!




Will's a licensed physical therapist (DPT) with over 15 years of experience treating patients from all backgrounds. He's been lifting weights and exercising in one form or another since middle school and has been working out in his own home gym for over a decade. When it comes to fitness equipment, there isn't much he hasn't tried. In his spare time, if he isn't writing or working out, he's likely playing basketball, watching movies, or hanging with his family.

2 thoughts on “6 Delicious Labor Day Food Ideas You Can Enjoy Without The Guilt”

  1. Thank you for a lot of really interesting ideas for “picnics” and life in general! I enjoy chicken thighs, as they are so much more versatile than breast meat, but I have to use an indoor grill because the smoke from local forest fires makes patio grilling impossible this summer.
    However, I have not seen or heard of a turkey chop. Is this breast meat?

    1. Good call on the chicken thighs, definitely my favorite part of the chicken to cook with. yeah, turkey chops come for the turkey breast. They tend to be fairly think sliced, think like a boneless pork chop, but turkey breast. They grill up really nicely. We started using them because we where trying to limit our intake of deli meat. They make a great sandwich.

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