vegetable kebabs grilled with tomato, courgette and pepper

Whether it’s a leg of lamb, pork belly or just burgers and sausages, meat is usually the star of the show at barbecues, with vegetables and salads often forgotten and unloved, and quite literally on the back burner.

Then, at a picnic it’s all too easy to fill up on a host of pasties, pies, tarts, crisps and sausage rolls. In a sea of beige it’s easy to graze all day and lose sight of how many calories you’re consuming.

But outdoor dining is the perfect excuse to showcase foods packed with colour. We all need to ease off on our consumption of meat, particularly red meat like beef, pork and lamb, as there’s evidence that too much can increase the risk of cancer and heart problems.

Now, I’m not trying to take the fun out of alfresco dining – far from it. I’m trying to make it even more fun by mixing thing up a bit while making it healthier too.

1. Make veggies the star of the show:

Meat doesn’t always have to be the centrepiece on the barbecue; vegetables such as pepper, aubergine, onion and courgette are all great when grilled especially in kebabs. Try Jamie’s deliciously simple Greek kebabs or marinated veggies.

Grilled fruit can also be great for a barbecue, and not just for dessert. Ripe peaches are essential in this recipe for Jamie’s warm grilled peach salad.

If you really feel deprived without a meat offering, it’s always better to make your own burgers, because shop-brought ones are often high in fat and salt.  If you want to be even healthier, make Jamie’s tuna burgers, which are lower in fat than typical beef burgers and possibly more delicious.

2. Get your 5-a-day, without realising it

Hitting your goal of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day shouldn’t be a chore, and there are lots of really great ways of doing so.

For example: dips like hummus can be really high in fat due to the rich tahini they’re made with, so for a healthier dip try whizzing up some cooked beetroot with fat-free Greek yoghurt (to retain a thick texture), a pinch of cumin, a squeeze of lemon juice, fresh mint and black pepper. The beetroot can be substituted with different vegetables, such as roasted peppers or grilled aubergines. That will get you some of the way; then serve with plenty of veggies that are hand-held and easy to eat. Sliced peppers, cucumber, carrot, celery sticks, radishes and lettuce leaves like cos and romaine are all great implements for dipping!

On to coleslaw; something any good picnic should feature. I don’t mean the supermarket excuse for coleslaw, which is typically dripping with rich mayonnaise – not the picture of light summer eating that we imagine – but one made with decent, lower-fat dressing, which can be made using fat free yoghurt, lemon juice, mustard, pepper and a little olive oil.  To give your coleslaw something extra special, try adding some shredded fruit, such as apple and pear, or even dried fruit like sultanas.

3. Keep hydrated

When the weather is hot, it’s really important not to get dehydrated. This isn’t an opportunity to hydrate with alcohol, mind you – I’m talking about water! In fact, a headache the day after you’ve been drinking alcohol is often a sign that your body is dehydrated. If you find it difficult to sip plain water during the day, make some lovely flavoured water by adding some slices of lemon, lime and mint leaves to pep it up and give it a flavour boost.

4. Exercise – burn off some calories before the feast!

Before you serve up it’s always good to work up an appetite and burn off some calories.  Whether it’s the local park or just in your back garden, get active; perhaps try a windy game of badminton, a bike ride or just a run around with the kids.  One of my perfect ways to spend a Sunday afternoon is playing a game of rounders with friends to work up an appetite before the eating commences, an hour of which can burn up to 400 calories!

5. Re-think desserts

I’m not depriving anyone of desserts, especially not Eton mess, Pavlova or a show-stopping trifle at this time of year, but if you’re like me and your social calendar in the summer is packed with barbecues and picnics, you probably shouldn’t indulge too much! For a lighter alternative, try these smoothie ice lollies with the kids ­– they won’t feel hard done-by, as they look great and taste delicious whatever age you are. However, for something a little more grown-up, Jamie has a great recipe for a mojito fruit salad.

healthy outdoor dining

So, thankfully it is possible to have some healthier options when dining outdoors – you just need to be aware of the clever tricks to test out and try. Have a look through our picnic recipes for more ideas!

About the author

Laura Matthews

Laura is head of nutrition at Jamie Oliver. Her passion for food comes from having cooking lessons at a local college from the age of 10, and the nutrition side from a fascination for how the right foods can fuel the body.

Laura Matthews


How to, Summer