THOUSAND PALMS, Calif. -

Ready to fire up the grill for the summer season? You're not alone! A recent survey found that 80 percent of Americans own a grill -- and the vast majority of them will be using it this summer.

Although grilling can be one of the healthiest and tastiest ways to cook, a typical BBQ menu of burgers, brats and dogs, and creamy sides can be a diet disaster totaling more than 2,000 calories. Plus, it may pack in more than a day's worth of saturated fat. But with these seven simple steps, you can create a leaner cookout menu.


1. Nix the chips

Instead of a ginormous bowl of potato chips, tortilla chips or pita chips, opt for healthy nibbles to start the party off right. I put out a tray of mixed baby veggies -- great for snacking -- with a trio of healthy dips like hummus, black bean dip andmuhammara. Also I always serve in-shell pistachios because they are so convenient, they taste great, and are a good source of protein and fiber -- three times the protein and fiber as flavored tortilla chips. Research suggests that they're also a more "mindful" snack as the empty shells may provide a visual cue for how much you've consumed. Need another reason to go nuts snacking on pistachios? Recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the health benefits of nuts increases with the number of servings -- something that can't be said for potato chips.

2. Star with summery salads

Before you dive into your BBQ favorites, go for some greens. Eating salads can be a great way to start your summer meals. Not only do they boost important nutrients in your diet, one study found that eating a large salad as your starter can reduce the overall calories you eat in that meal by 12 percent! I always have at least one huge tossed salad (and often two) with healthy add-ins like nuts and seeds, carmelized onions, beans and legumes, and chopped cooked veggies.

3. Slim down the sides

Skip the creamy potato and pasta salads, which can pack in over 350 calories per cup and enjoy succulent summer veggies grilled to perfection. Corn on the cob, summer squash, asparagus, bell peppers and eggplant are sure to please your taste buds while adding less than 50 calories per cup. Just pick your favorites and toss in plastic bag with oil, pepper or your favorite seasonings.

4. Marinate

Whether you're grilling fish, pork, chicken or beef, always use a marinade. Marinades add flavor (so you won't have to pile on heavy sauces later) and tenderize meat. They also have a huge health benefit: They help reduce cancer-causing compounds that can result from charring.

Eating charred meat on a regular basis may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, but that doesn't mean you have to give up on grilling. Studies have shown that you can cut these carcinogens with a simple marinade of oil, lemon juice or vinegar, and seasonings. I use canola oil as a base, as its light texture and neutral flavor go perfectly with herbs and spices, plus it's heart-healthy.

5. Build a better burger (or dog)

If you're opting for burgers, use the leanest ground beef possible (I often buy ground sirloin for my burgers, as it's leaner) or use skinless turkey breast or Portabella mushrooms. For added moisture, mix meat with an egg, chopped onion and other veggies. If you choose breast meat, be sure not to overcook.

For hot dogs, you can slash saturated fat by choosing chicken or turkey based options over beef. There are also some great tasting vegetarian dogs on the market that are low in both calories and saturated fat. In fact, with some brands of veggie dogs you can slash calories and saturated fat by over 50 percent vs. regular beef hot dogs.

6. Go for guilt-free desserts

For something sweet, in-season fruit is the perfect choice. There are an endless number of healthy desserts you can make when you start with fruit. It can be as simple as a fruit dessert topped with fresh mint sprigs or a Greek yogurt and fruit layered parfait or a cobbler. One of my favorites? Mango. Wow your guests at your next cookout with this Mango-Yogurt Parfait or Strawberry Cheesecake Bites (just 40 calories each).

7. Sip smart

If you want to stay swimsuit fit this season, one of the best things to do is reduce liquid calories. Skip sodas and other sugary beverages and reach for sparkling water (or plain tap) or unsweetened iced tea instead. As for alcohol, it's okay to enjoy in moderation (one drink per day for women, two for men), but keep in mind that beer, mixed drinks, and liquor all have calories. If you want to keep calories to a minimum, try a light or ultra-light beer. Some have as few as 55 calories a bottle. Or try one of my favorites: a fruit-infused mixed drink like this spritzer with watermelon.