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Filling your cookout plate

Each year Labor Day brings a close (or at least a pause) to family & friend gatherings surrounded with food. It's a final hoo-rah for summer before the chill of fall and blustery winter keeps us indoors the remainder of the year.

For many, cookouts and barbecues are a fun, conversation-filled time of relaxation. For others, cookouts can be the biggest nightmare of all: a never-ending supply of foods ranging from healthier options like corn on the cob and hamburgers to the dreaded chips, dips, mayonnaise coated salads, cakes, pies, and more. Have no fear and keep reading for my simple tips to keep a clear, calm mind when approaching the food tables and healthfully enjoy the comfort of yummy foods.


Tip #1 RELAX

This tip is much easier said than done. Once you're able to truly relax and prevent your all-consuming food-thoughts from taking over you may notice the gravitational pull for 3rds or 4ths isn't quite as strong. I have found that entering a state of calm mindfulness, whether solo in the bathroom for a few moments or while chatting with others, is helpful before approaching the bounty of food.

Tip #2 EAT

Don't be afraid to eat! Setting limits for yourself by labeling foods "good" and "bad" can be more harmful than helpful. In my experience, self-implementing these labels makes the "bad" foods more enticing and I find myself eating even more of these foods and/or skipping out on the "good" foods I've labeled. This is the opposite effect you intend to have so focus on working against the impact of labeling.

So now we're in a place where no foods are off limits! This can be liberating and terrifying all at the same time. Therefore, I offer that you use the calm mindfulness you've already established to fill your plate. Filling your plate from this mindset will help you to naturally listen to what your body wants and craves, including portions of these foods! Skip to the bottom for my specific suggestions on filling your plate!


One thing I always forget to do when engaged in constant conversation, outdoor games, and likely having an adult beverage or two is to hydrate! Water is the most basic element of our daily food intake that we always forget about, skip, or simply don't get enough of. I've learned, too, that we likely misinterpret our body's thirst signals for hunger. THIS DOES NOT MEAN SUBSTITUTING WATER FOR FOOD. It's important that you eat as well as drink adequate amounts of water. A simple suggestion for you while at a cookout is to bring your water bottle - yes, that giant Hydroflask (32oz) or whatever you normally carry around with you - and aim to drink and refill that bottle at least twice during the cookout. Don't have your water bottle with you (or forgot it like I typically do)? Keep, drink, and refill a plastic cup at least 1x per hour of the cookout. Assuming you are at the cookout for 4 hours and the cup you're using is a standard Solo cup holding 16oz, that's the same as drinking two of your 32oz hydroflasks!

Mel's tips on filling your plate:


I like to start with the "main course" or key protein source at the cookout. Because I'm not a vegetarian, this is typically a hamburger, but adjust as you need based on what's available at your cookout! On that protein source, I stack lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, and just a circle of yellow mustard. KEY: protein + veggies + dash of condiment

Also, feel free to add the bun! However will make the protein easiest to eat (read: without a knife and fork) is what you should opt for.

After deciding and dressing up my protein, I'll see what other veggie options there are: veggie tray, corn on the cob, salad greens, etc. And fill 1/2 my plate with that!

Then use the rest of your plate for whatever else you're craving! Love potato or macaroni salad, add a small spoonful of each to your plate. Like potato chips? Add a small handful of those. The key here is to avoid overflowing your plate with anything after the veggies. You don't want a saggy plate to slide out of your hands and onto the ground.

Notice I haven't said anything about dessert yet?! That's because a) not everything you eat during a cookout has to fit on one plate b) it can wait!

After calmly eating through your first plate, take a little break. As we all know it takes some time for the nerves in your stomach to signal to your brain that you're full. Use this time to drink some water and continue your conversations!

Then feel free to check-in with yourself again. Maybe you'd like another hamburger or plate of salad greens, or another scoop of potato salad. GO FOR IT! The key here is to approach your food intake calmly & mindfully, take your time, and enjoy every bite of what you're eating!

You'll know when it's time for dessert and/or time to stop! If it's time for dessert, don't forget to get a new plate.

Questions, comments, feedback, suggestions for others? Let me know!

*Disclaimer: Melissa is still in school working towards her Masters of Science in Nutrition and studying for the Certified Nutrition Specialist Exam. All of her suggestions are based on materials learned during her schooling as well as her personal experience. What she has to offer may or may not work for you. If you seek additional support and counselling, feel free to reach out to her and/or your nutrition professional.

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I'm a Nutrition Educator & Wellness Coach based in and serving Washington, DC and the DMV region. My lifestyle-focused method has successfully helped clients achieve personal results and enhance athletic ability, eMpowering performance in class, rehearsals, and on-stage. As professional dancer myself, I have gained nutritional balance and improved my own relationship with food through many years of practice and a Masters of Science in Nutrition from University of Bridgeport. I bring this depth of personal and academic experience to a variety of clients, particularly performance athletes and fitness enthusiasts. In my spare time, I teach yoga and manage Ballet Embody, a professional contemporary ballet company.
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