If you’re looking for a few ways to make that summer BBQ and picnic food a little healthier, a healthy coleslaw is probably a good place to start. Nothing says “summer is finally here!” like a juicy burger beside a mound of cool and creamy slaw but unfortunately, that creaminess usually comes from fat-heavy mayo, which is fine in moderation but if you like slaw as we do, might have you squeezing into that bathing suit after a while. Luckily for slaw fans, there are some great coleslaw recipes without mayo and other simple tricks to dial down the fat and calories in slaw without sacrificing that flavor and texture you love. Here’s how to lighten up and healthify slaw—your favorite summer side.
1. Use a mayo substitute in your slaw.
Don’t knock it before you try it—swapping Greek yogurt for mayo is a healthier way to get that creaminess you crave in a slaw. In fact, it’s healthier than choosing low-fat mayo, which can be higher in sugar and sodium to compensate for flavor. “Start with at least half yogurt and eventually swap out the entire portion,” says Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Atlanta. You’ll even sneak in some extra protein for satiety, she adds.
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2. Add fresh veggies.
The summer harvest is especially bountiful, so take advantage of those fresh flavors. Not only will you pump up the nutrition by adding variety to your traditional cabbage medley, but those flavor surprises will also outshine some of the unhealthier ingredients (such as salt or mayo) that you’re lacking. “Using fresh summer vegetables such as zucchini or corn allows for the season to really shine through,” says Geoffrey Zakarian, Food Network star and chef and partner of Point Royal at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Fla. Spiralize the zucchini or throw in raw corn kernels straight off the cob.
3. Embrace acid as slaw binder and flavoring agent.
“Bold and acidic ingredients punch up the flavor in slaw, allowing you to cut back on mayo and salt,” says Moore. First, cut back your mayo portion by at least 25 percent (the more you can slash, the better!), then add the acid. “Jazz up your traditional coleslaw with lemon or lime juice or apple cider vinegar.”
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4. Experiment with ethnic slaw recipes & global ingredients.
Cabbage has such a mild flavor that it can handle just about any flavor profile you dress it in. “Kick up the flavor without a lot of calories by trying international sauces or toppings like chimichurri, kimchi, English mustard, or ponzu to a slaw,” says Judy Joo, owner and chef patron at Jinjuu Restaurants in London and Hong Kong. Mix the mustard with a little mayo, chimichurri in place of mayo, kimchi as a tangy mix-in, or a drizzle of ponzu to achieve that vinegar note. Asian flavors meld seamlessly into a coleslaw. Moore suggests adding shredded carrots and make a dressing of rice vinegar, fresh grated ginger, and a small bit of sesame oil—then toss with a white and red cabbage mix and immediately inhale.
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5. Don’t forget about fruit (or nuts).
Diced apple chunks or sectioned oranges can add a hit of sweetness to both a zesty vinegary slaw and a creamy one. Throw in a handful of sunflower seeds or chopped almonds or walnuts and you’ve just added fiber and protein to the mix. A sprinkle of hemp seeds can also be nice for nutrition and added crunch.
6. Mix up your slaw mix.
You don’t need to stick to strictly cabbage for it to be considered coleslaw. Shredded broccoli and kale make nutritionally powerful additions—not to mention delicious ones! If you need inspiration, try Moore’s broccoli slaw with a honey tahini dressing (the tahini is another smart mayo swap that provides creamy flavor without all the saturated fat.)
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7. Bring the heat.
Related Reading: Picnic-Perfect Potato Salad Recipes That Don’t Use Mayonnaise
8. Don’t forget about the sides to your side.
Choose a healthy main dish, otherwise, you’ll negate all the good you did healthifying your coleslaw. Opt for lean protein like grilled chicken, fish, shrimp, or lean cuts of beef.
A few healthy slaw recipes to try
This slaw recipe with bright Latin flavors uses no mayo but rather oil and citrus as a binder. Feel free to use whatever healthy oil you prefer like avocado or coconut but nothing too heavy. Extra virgin olive oil will weigh this salad down. Get our Tangy Cabbage Slaw recipe.
Another slaw sans mayonnaise that will up the health grade a few notches. Get some welcome vitamins from the carrot and a little zing and pep from the red wine vinegar. Get our Carrot Slaw recipe.
A simple olive oil and lime juice dressing with a hint of earthy cumin let spicy jalapeño and the natural sweetness of cabbage take center stage. Bell pepper and cilantro are supporting players that also get the chance to shine. Get our Spicy Lime and Jalapeño Coleslaw recipe.
This one is especially good heading into fall, since it showcases apples along with kale in a cider vinegar and Dijon based dressing with poppyseeds and a touch of honey. Swap in stevia or another plant-based sweetener to make it vegan. Get our Kale Apple Coleslaw recipe.
With Napa cabbage, green onion, and roasted peanuts tossed in a bright rice vinegar and peanut oil dressing, this Asian-influenced slaw is the definition of refreshing. There’s plenty of fresh ginger too, plus just a touch of sugar for contrast and sesame oil for extra nutty depth. Get our Healthy Asian Coleslaw recipe.