Menu Navigator: Best (and Worst) Choices at a Barbecue Restaurant

Yes, you can keep up a healthy diet at a barbecue joint.

BBQ Illustration
Photo: Illustration by Serge Bloch  

Barbecue: It's a noun and a verb and a piece of equipment and a technique (to be distinguished from grilling) and, in some places, almost a religion. It's also all about bigness—of flavors, of servings. That makes it a challenge for the healthy eater.

Still, there are sound choices on a barbecue menu, as the "Healthy Choice" and "Ask Your Server" selections below show. Keep in mind, however, that the entrées listed here don't include side dishes, and creamed corn, mac'n cheese, and breaded okra can each easily contain nearly 20 grams of saturated fat. Fries or onion rings can cost you nearly half your day's calories. Although we wish we had a sexier solution, your best bet is a salad or steamed veggie with dressing or sauce on the side.

We analyzed the nutrition of common dishes. Numbers vary widely among restaurants. Those labeled "Splurge Only" aren't untouchable (no food is) but can be a big splurge.

Splurge Only:

  • Half Chicken
    14 grams saturated fat
    Surprise! The dark meat and the skin, combined with whatever fat is used to baste the bird, make chicken a bad choice.
  • Spareribs (regular pork ribs)
    16 grams saturated fat
    There is nothing spare about a big rack of these. This is nearly your entire day's worth of saturated fat. An indulgence.

Ask Your Server:

  • Brisket
    13 grams saturated fat
    Many joints give you 8 ounces or more of meat, nearly a day's worth of saturated fat and, really, enough meat for two meals, so split it.
  • Baby Back Ribs
    15 grams saturated fat
    When you hanker for ribs, baby backs are a better choice. Order half a rack with a crowd, and have just one or two ribs as an appetizer.

Healthy Choices:

  • Smoked Barbecue Turkey
    6 grams saturated fat
    Make sure it's turkey breast, and this is a great way to get all that great smoke flavor without a ton of saturated fat and calories.
  • Pulled Pork Sandwich
    8 grams saturated fat
    Since bread replaces some of the meat when you eat a sandwich instead of a plateful, you'll end up consuming less saturated fat.

SAUCE SPECIFICS

Vinegar Sauce: A sharp vinegar base gets sweet balance from brown sugar, plus a little body from a dollop of ketchup. Of the basic barbecue sauces, this one is usually lowest in calories and sodium. It gets its heat from ground or crushed red pepper, fresh chiles, or hot sauce.

Mustard Sauce: Built from yellow mustard flavored with sugar, molasses, and vinegar, it's often enriched with a little butter. Sodium is the biggest concern.

Red Sauce: It starts with ketchup or tomato sauce, then brown sugar and molasses sweeten it up. A spice blend (usually secret) adds character. Red sauce is high in sugar and, often, in sodium.

White Sauce: Gaining favor in some quarters, this creamy sauce packs the most calories. It can be a tasty blend of mayo, mustard, sugar, vinegar, or lemon—with a little extra bite from horseradish.

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  • Woman at table

    Menu Navigator

    Trying to eat healthy when dining out? We'll show you what to order at a typical restaurant.

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