Guilt-Free Grilling

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Let’s get cooking (with fewer calories)

Summer means different things to different people. For some, it’s three months of vacation between school years. For others, it’s the terror of not quite being ready for swimsuit season. 

Whatever your mindset, there are two universal truths we can all agree on in regards to the dog days of summer: 

  1. It’s hot, and
  2. It’s the perfect time to cook meat outdoors. 

(Grilling) season’s greetings!

Summer is officially grilling season. And, whether you cook with charcoal, propane or wood, the end result is delicious food.

It’s healthy. Right?

A common misconception is that grilled is always better than fried. On one hand, grilling helps you avoid batter coatings or dripping grease, but you’re still preparing high-fat meats and sausages.

It’s no surprise that outdoor grilling may not be the healthiest way to eat, but we’re not about to tell you to take a pass on a tried-and-true summertime rite of passage. If you’re trying to eat better or are hoping to make healthier choices, we’ve put together some tips to help you grill safely and without guilt.

 Keep it clean

A clean grill means a clean meal. Use a wire brush to clean the charred buildup on your grill and wipe it down with a cloth or wadded-up paper towels.

Burn some bright colors

Whether you’re cooking burgers or fish, a side of vegetables is always a smart choice. We all need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and this is a great way to do it. Plus, these antioxidant-rich sides taste great with grilled meats.

Fruits and vegetables that are great on the grill can include:

  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Mango
  • Onions
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini

Lean on me(at)

Watching fat from your meat drip onto hot coals may make your mouth water, but it’s gross and messy – not to mention a sign of unhealthy food. Instead, choose lean cuts of meat trimmed of visible fat and skin. Whether it’s beef, pork or skinless chicken, you’re already off to a healthier start. Plus, lean meats can be more tender and tasty.

Let the juices and seasonings flow

There’s no greater culinary joy than adding flavors to something that’s already delicious. That’s why adding seasoning or soaking meats, fruits and vegetables in a tasty marinade is so tantalizing.

Some favorite seasonings and marinades include:

  • Garlic
  • Herbs
  • Honey
  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Onions
  • Soy sauce
  • Spices
  • Vinegar
  • Wines

You can use low-fat marinades on your grilled meats, fish and poultry. Here are a few tips to keep it healthy:

  • Look for marinades (or recipes to make your own) that contain olive or canola oil.
  • Refrigerate foods that marinate longer than 30 minutes.
  • Don't baste your food during grilling with the liquid the meat was marinating in - this passes raw meat juices to your cooked meat. Instead, try basting it in the original marinate you started with.
  • Meats and poultry should marinate for at least one to two hours. Fish and vegetables usually only need to marinate for an hour.

Less is more

Grill smaller portions of meat, poultry and fish so they cook faster and spend less time on the grill. You can also precook meat, fish and poultry in the oven or microwave, then finish cooking on the grill.

Why? Because exposing protein-rich meat and poultry to high heat and open flames creates heterocyclic amines (or HCA). When fat drips and burns on the grill, the resulting smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These two groups of chemicals have been linked to various types of cancer.

“According growing evidence, certain chemicals are formed when muscle meat, including beef and pork, are cooked at high temperatures, according to Saba Zahid, a patient experience manager/clinical nutrition manager for Adena Health system’s clinical nutrition services. “Certain compounds within muscle meat undergo reactions during the cooking process and become carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. These compounds are known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and are capable of altering DNA, which can then lead to cell mutations. While most research has been conducted in labs, growing evidence is indicating there is also human risks of cancer.”

There are several simple ways to prevent this:

  • Line the grill with foil perforated with holes.
  • Cook for longer at a lower temperature.
  • Use marinades to add a layer of protection from direct exposure to heat.
  • Have a spray bottle filled with water handy to control fatty flare-ups.

Flip it real good

Keep your grilled foods in motion by flipping frequently. Also turn meat without piercing it, using tongs or spatulas instead of a fork. This keeps all the delicious taste seared inside the meat and not dripping all over your grill.

Skewer (aka make a food sword)

Imagine threading popcorn to create a garland for your Christmas tree, but instead of popcorn, you use meat. And instead of putting it on a tree, you eat it.

A fun way to cut down on grilling time is to thread small pieces of meat or fish on a skewer. Scallops and shrimp make tasty skewers, too. You can also alternate meat and vegetables for a delicious (and really nice looking) meal.

Watch those sides

When it comes to healthy eating, the devil is usually in the details: the side dishes.

“In addition to watching what’s on the grill, be mindful of your barbeque sides,” Saba said. “Traditional sides such as potato salad, macaroni salads, and slaw tend to be laden with mayonnaise, salt, sugar, and lots of calories.”

Here are a few ideas to help you ensure your picnic sides are just as healthy as what you have on the grill:

  • Try macaroni salad with a vinegar and oil-based dressing and be sure to add lots of veggies to add fiber, nutrients, crunch and flavor for a more nutrient-dense and filling alternative.
  • For a healthier potato salad, skip the mayonnaise dressing and try an oil and herb dressing. Greek yogurt also makes a great alternative to mayonnaise, but be sure you have a place to keep your potato salad cool if you choose to Greek yogurt in your potato salad.
  • Bring the healthy option that you would like to see on the grill or picnic table rather than hoping someone else does.

Stay safe and healthy

Like apple pie and the Fourth of July, outdoor grilling is an American tradition. By following the advice above, you can enjoy a safe and healthier grilling season as you fire up the barbie.