Burgers, Lightened Up

Spring and summer are prime time for burgers. Whether you like beef, poultry or veggies, there’s a burger out there for you. Here are some fresh ways to build a lighter (but still delicious) burger.

Spring and summer are prime time for burgers -- they're so perfect for cookouts. Today is actually National Burger Day, and what better way to celebrate than with a few tips and recipes. Whether you like beef, poultry or veggies, there’s a patty out there for you. Here are some ways to build a lighter -- but still yummy -- sandwich.

Burger Lovers Beware

Calories and fat abound in many burgers because of fatty meats, huge buns and heaps of cheese and creamy sauces. Instead of banishing these from your plate, think about ways to trim them down. A little less of each will shave off calories, and you won’t miss a thing in the flavor department -- promise! (Read more about what to do when ordering burgers in my recent post, “But I Just Want a Cheeseburger”)

Leaner Meats

Fatty cuts of meat are high in saturated fat and cholesterol (not so good for the old ticker). Leaner alternatives -- 90-95% lean ground beef, ground chicken or turkey breast, bison, and fish (salmon makes great burgers) -- are lighter alternatives. When it comes to ground poultry (chicken and turkey) always get breast meat; if the package just says “ground turkey,” there’s dark meat and skin mixed in, making it much higher in fat. The pre-made veggie burgers contain a mix of beans, grains or soy-based meat substitutes. Some also have eggplant or portabella mushrooms. These are often lower in fat and calories (just make sure your bean burger is baked, not fried).

Most restaurant and fast food burgers are so big, just biting into them can be a challenge. That should be a loud warning bell. Trimming down the portion saves more calories and fat. A smart serving is about 3 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards). Cut your burger in half and save the rest for later, if possible.

Toppings and Buns

If you love cheese and mayo, consider low-fat versions and opt for one, not both. Sliced avocado makes a creamy addition to a burger and offers less saturated fat and cholesterol (see below for more flavorful topping ideas).

In my humble opinion, a ton of bread distracts from a tasty burger -- plus, it piles on unnecessary calories. If possible, use thin breads like sandwich bread, English muffins or even a wrap or pita. Small hamburger buns are fine, too –- read the labels and look for buns that are 180 calories or less. Try whole grain breads for extra fiber while you’re at it.

Bring On the Flavor

Leaner meats get a bad reputation for being bland. Even though fat does provide flavor, there are other things you can do boost taste but not the calories. I usually add fresh herbs, spices and tangy sauces to my burger mixture -- it also help keep burgers moist (so will chopped mushrooms or onions).

Cheeseburgers are a classic, and topping your burger with a strong cheese like blue cheese or sharp cheddar will make a huge impact on taste -- just keep the additions small. Of course other classics are mustard, ketchup, BBQ sauce, steak sauce, teriyaki and salsa are good choices -- all of which are lighter than cheese or mayo. (Just stick to one tablespoon portions to keep the sodium in check). And don’t forget to pile on the fresh vegetables like ripe tomatoes, onion, spinach, lettuce and cucumbers. Even with a smaller burger, you'll still feel full with loads of fiber-rich veggies.

One of my favorite tricks: mix salsa or mango chutney with whole-wheat bread crumbs and add it to a turkey burger mixture -- it keeps my burgers extra juicy and gives them a special kick.

    Healthier burger recipes to try:
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