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Ask JJ: Cookouts

If you can't host, forget to bring your healthy side dish, or have no desire to bring your own (sometimes you want to be), you can still enjoy summer gatherings without nose-diving into your aunt's famous blackberry hazelnut meringue with these seven strategies.
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Dear JJ: I'm not a "bring your own" person, yet I find barbecues and other summer outdoor functions can become my undoing when I'm trying to lose weight. How do you navigate those affairs when there's nothing healthy to eat?

Memorial Day initiates the carefree, warm (OK, sometimes sweltering) season populated with outdoor gatherings.

Many such events revolve around food. Obviously, just because wild-caught salmon or a big leafy salad isn't on the menu doesn't give you license to dive into a greasy bacon cheeseburger or a heaping side of potato salad.

Your best strategy in those situations requires hosting your own cookout. That's not always possible. Besides, attending others' parties can be fun, so bringing your own dish ensures at least something will be healthy.

I usually carry something like Portobello mushrooms to toss on the grill or fresh berries for dessert. Sometimes I'll slip some dark chocolate and a bottle of pinot noir.

Yet if you can't host, forget to bring your healthy side dish, or have no desire to bring your own (sometimes you want to be served), you can still enjoy summer gatherings without nose-diving into your aunt's famous blackberry hazelnut meringue with these seven strategies.

1. Eat before you go. You know the drill: You arrive famished, grab something cold and alcoholic, and before you know it you're mindlessly shoveling down a fourth bruschetta while impatiently awaiting the grill to fire up. Don't fall victim to that situation. Stabilize your blood sugar with something healthy before you go (a protein shake works perfectly) so you can focus on friends and festivities.

2. Fill up on low-sugar impact foods first. Fill a good portion of your plate with grilled zucchini and other veggies, spinach salad, and leafy greens. Add a grass-fed burger (sans bun) or chicken breast and you've got a surefire formula to crush that cobbler craving.

3. Once through and call it quits. Just because piles of food sit on the picnic table and your host insists you eat seconds doesn't give you license to go overboard. Get a small plate, fill it up, and you're done eating. Trust me, somebody will take the leftovers.

4. Watch your sauces. Barbeque sauce drowning your chicken breast is like dessert with your protein. Ketchup, high-sugar impact salad dressings, and other sneaky-sugar condiments crash your food's nutritional value. Experiment instead with oil and vinegar dressings, low-sugar impact marinades, and spicy gluten-free mustard for dipping. Gluten-free dry rubs give your meats a zesty kick without the sugary sauces.

5. Save alcohol for dessert. If one glass of chardonnay becomes a slippery slope into carbs-ville, save your alcohol for dessert and sip mineral water with lime or stevia-sweetened iced green tea instead. Whenever you start imbibing, two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink will keep you hydrated and less likely to curse that 6 a.m. alarm clock tomorrow morning.

6. Focus on company. Picnics and other summer outings revolve around good friends and family, yet too often the attention shifts to your neighbor's famous mint chip ice cream pie. Bring the focus back to what matters. Be present and really listen to your friends. If possible, do something active like horseshoes rather than just standing there ogling blueberry pie or sipping sangria.

7. Keep my three-bite rule. If dessert becomes your downfall (we've all been there), plan ahead and bring fresh berries with coconut cream. If that isn't going to happen and your best friend insists you try her famous pineapple upside-down cake, stick with my three-bite rule. Enjoy three polite bites and step away from the dessert table.

Even with the best intentions, eating smartly at summer functions can become a challenge. What strategy would YOU add here? Share yours below, and keep those fab questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.