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Cookout Essentials

Seven steps for easy outdoor entertaining
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Long summer evenings are the perfect time to gather friends for an outdoor meal. The only hard part is getting started. If you're overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for a crowd, make it easy, with healthy ready-to-eat foods. Follow these simple steps to an artful meal.

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1. Start with salad. A colorful, beautiful salad adds volumes of nutrition and color to any cookout. Combine several different varieties of lettuce: Mix the tangy bite of dandelion with mild baby spinach; the bitter crunch of Belgian endive with sweet and mild Bibb; or tender baby oak leaf with peppery arugula. Add handfuls of coarsely chopped fresh basil or cilantro, then layer on interesting ingredients, such as shaved fennel or asparagus, raw corn or peas, artichoke hearts, chunks of pineapple or mango, dried figs, and yellow pear tomatoes. Top with nuts for a crouton-free crunch, then toss with pre-made organic salad dressings.

Try this: Combine baby spinach and baby arugula leaves with a generous portion of chopped basil; add candied nuts, avocado cubes, and dried cherries, then toss withAnnie's NaturalsLite Poppy Seed Dressing.

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2. Focus on the main event. For most outdoor parties, that means the grill. Choose a selection of quality meats, including organic, grass-fed beef, chicken, and turkey burgers and dogs. Even easier, buy them frozen for simple prep. Salmon burgers also make a nice alternative. And don't forget to offer some vegetarian and soy-free options. Some ideas: Amy'sSonoma Veggie Burgers, Hilary's Eat Well The World's Best Veggie Burger, or Organic SunshineSouthwest Burgers.

Try this: Marinate cubes of Light LifeOrganic Tempeh in OrganicvilleSesame Teriyaki marinade (which is gluten-free), then thread on a skewer, alternating with chunks of peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Grill until tempeh is golden and vegetables are tender.

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3. Make the bread count. Skip the white buns, and choose whole-grain and organic versions instead. Make sure to buy a variety of gluten-free offerings such as Udi'sClassic Hamburger Buns or Ener-GTapioca Hot Dog Buns. For a more creative approach (and fewer carbs), serve burgers or dogs with pitas, flat breads, or tortillas such asLa Tortilla FactoryLow-Carb Tortillas orFood for LifeGluten-Free Tortillas.

Try this: Brush La TortillaSoft Wraps Mini White Whole Wheat tortillas (which are new) with garlic and olive oil, wrap in foil, and heat on the grill until warm, then serve with salmon burgers.

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4. Get creative with condiments. Offer the standard trio of ketchup, mayo, and mustard, and then branch out; add Stonewall KitchenSpicy Honey Mustard,Sweet ZingFine Mustard,Spectrum Organic Mayonnaise with Olive Oil,WholematoSpicy Organic Agave Ketchup, and a creative variety of hot sauces, relishes, and other uncommon condiments. And be sure to include vegan and gluten-free alternatives, such as NaysoyaNayonaise Original, and OrganicvilleKetchup.

Try this: Combine organic or vegan mayonnaise with finely minced basil and garlic, or whirl in a blender with half of a chipotle pepper, for a fresh, creative twist on mayo.

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5. Keep sides and starters simple. Use pre-made items you can arrange on a platter, pour in a bowl, or whip up in a jiffy. Here's your grocery list: organic grapes; baby carrots andTribe OrganicHummus;Organic DivinaGreek Olive Mix; Marcona almonds; Laurie'sBuffalo Gourmet Chips and Salsas; organic melon; a variety of cheeses; and Mary'sGone CrackersBlack Pepper Crackers. Arrange grapes, crackers, and cheese on plates; pour nuts and olives in bowl; slice melon and arrange on a plate; and scatter bowls of chips, salsa, and hummus around the dining area. Make your life even easier, and assign some selections for guests to bring.

Try this: Make fast-cooking TruRootsAccents Sprouted Quinoa and TruRootsAccents Sprouted Lentils; combine in a bowl, toss with chopped parsley, scallions, and cherry tomatoes, then drizzle with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and minced garlic.

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6. Bring on the beverages. The easiest choice for alcoholic beverages is BYOB, but be sure to have lots of non-alcoholic options on hand. Offer a variety of juices, spritzers, seltzers, and natural sodas, and plenty of ice. Try Reed'sGinger Brew,Santa Cruz OrganicSpritzers, Virgil'sRoot Beer, or iced GuayakíYerba Maté. Zeviastevia-sweetened sodas are a delicious, no-calorie alternative to sugary sodas. Or brew a pot of Choice GreenMoroccan Mint Tea, then chill and serve iced with crushed fresh mint and a squeeze of lime.

Try this: Combine fresh-squeezed lemon juice in a large pitcher with Lakewood OrganicPure Pomegranate Juice and sparkling water. Mix gently to blend, then add slices of lemon and pomegranate seeds for garnish.

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7. Leave the sweets to others. Potlucks are tricky; you'll inevitably end up with 10 bags of chips and countless jars of salsa. Instead, invite guests to bring healthy desserts, and give them guidelines to take the pressure off. Some suggestions: Mary's Gone CrackersLove Cookies, organic frozen pies with whipped cream, Luna and Larry'sCoconut Bliss Dairy-Free Ice Cream,Alden'sOrganic Ice Creams, a selection of organic chocolates, andBear NakedGranola for a crunchy topping.

Try this: Make a build-your-own sundae bar. Have guests bring a variety of ice cream and toppings, then arrange them on a table, set out bowls and spoons, and let the fun begin.

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