Summer is synonymous with grilling for many American families, and why not? When the weather is warm, we spend more time outdoors and try to stay out of the hot kitchen. It stays light longer, and the evenings tend to seem a little less jam-packed with activities than usual. These are all great reasons to look to the barbecue for dinner inspiration. But before you dust off that grill, we have some tips to help you enjoy the BBQ season while keeping your dinners as lean and healthy as can be.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 1: Bold ingredients add great flavor to grilling sauces and marinades.
You can add bold flavors without adding too many calories or fat grams. Here are some of my favorite ingredients for sauces and marinades:
- Worcestershire sauce: 2 tablespoons contain 30 calories, 0 grams fat, and 390 milligrams sodium
- Chili sauce: 2 tablespoons contain 40 calories, 0 grams fat, and 960 milligrams sodium (depending on brand)
- Tomato paste: 2 tablespoons contain 30 calories, 0 grams fat, and 20 milligrams sodium
- Molasses: 2 tablespoons contain 120 calories, 0 grams fat, and 40 milligrams sodium
- Soy sauce (less-sodium type): 2 tablespoons contain 20 calories, 0 grams fat, and 1150 milligrams sodium
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 2: Have large resealable plastic bag, will marinate!
One of the easiest ways to marinate meat, chicken, fish or vegetables is to place them inside a large, resealable plastic bag. Set the bag in a medium sized bowl, then drizzle the marinade over the food. Seal the bag, eliminating any excess air. The food should be surrounded by the marinade. Keep marinating in the refrigerator until you're ready to grill.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 3: A little sweetness is good, but more is not better.
Adding a small amount of a sweet ingredient (like fruit juice, brown sugar, honey or molasses) to the marinade or grilling sauce can be a good thing. It adds flavor and helps to balance other bold spices in the marinade or sauce. But too much sweetness can encourage the meat, fish, or vegetables to burn when they're grilled over high heat.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 4: Throw some vegetables on the grill
The best part about grilling vegetables is that you don't have to worry about overcooking them as you do with some types of meat. And vegetables seem to taste better grilled than they do cooked any other way.
Marinating vegetables will help them caramelize better when they're grilled, and it's the caramelization that brings the best flavors. Just submerge the vegetables in marinade for about an hour before putting them on the grill. If you don't have that kind of prep time, just coat the vegetables ever so lightly with a little olive oil or canola oil.
The trick to grilling vegetables is cutting them into shapes and sizes that cook well on the grill. When you cook them over direct medium heat, turning frequently, they'll usually be done in 8-10 minutes (sometimes less, depending on the vegetable). Look for grill marks and some light browning to develop.
These vegetables work especially well on the grill.
- Red, white, or sweet onion, sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds.
- Corn on the cob (take off the husks and silks).
- Whole mushrooms. Grill portabellas like a burger or them cut into thick slices; grill small mushrooms strung on a skewer or kabob.
- Eggplant, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices.
- Zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices.
- Asparagus spears. Just trim off the white end and grill the spears whole.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 5: When grilling chicken, take the skin off -- take it all off!
- 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast with skin contains 223 calories, 8.8 grams of fat, and 2.5 grams of saturated fat
- 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast WITHOUT skin contains 187 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 1.2 grams of saturated fat
But if you cook your chicken with the skin on, then take it off at the dinner table, you'll lose all the flavor from your marinade, BBQ sauce, or rubs and seasonings. So go ahead and take the skin off before you prepare the chicken for grilling.
Marinate skinless chicken breasts and thighs for about 2 hours in the refrigerator. Let the marinade drain off, then cook chicken over direct high heat or direct medium heat until it's done throughout. Always check the thickest part of the chicken breast or thigh for doneness. You can cook chicken over indirect heat as well; it will just take longer to cook.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 6: Use the leanest cuts of beef and pork and trim any visible fat before cooking.
Just how much fat and saturated fat can you cut this way? Here's a beef example:
- A 4-ounce serving of a higher fat steak (Porterhouse), broiled with 1/8-inch trim of fat, contains 337 calories, 25 grams of fat, and 10 grams of saturated fat.
- A leaner steak (top sirloin), trimmed of visible fat and broiled, contains 240 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 4 grams of saturated fat per 4-ounce serving.
Here's a pork example:
- A 4-ounce serving of a higher-fat pork cut (pork chop whole loin), broiled, contains 274 calories, 16 grams fat, and 6 grams saturated fat.
- A leaner pork cut (tenderloin), roasted, contains 162 calories, 4 grams fat, and 1.4 grams saturated fat per 4-ounce serving.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 7: Be sensible about servings.
Encourage eating smaller portions by grilling the meat in smaller portions, such as:
- 1/4 pound burgers (made with extra-lean ground sirloin) instead of 1/3 or 1/2 pound patties.
- Filet mignon-sized steaks instead of 10- to 16-ounce steaks.
- Kabobs made with small pieces of meat, alternated with vegetables.
- Link sausage cut lengthwise in half instead of grilled whole.
- Thin slices of larger cuts of meat (such whole pork tenderloin, roasts, etc). Let the meat rest 10 minutes after cooking, then slice before serving to family or guests.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 8: Tenderize lean meats with marinades!
When grilling lean meat, use lower-fat marinades with acid ingredients to help break down the tough fibers. Marinades add lots of flavor, too.
But keep in mind that the power of marinades is only skin-deep. They can tenderize the surface of the meat only to about 1/4 inch. That's why it's important to make sure the marinade covers the entire surface of your meat. It also helps to score the meat (cut into the surface about 1/4 inch deep with a sharp knife in several places) before coating it with marinade.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 9: Lower potential cancer risks associated with grilling.
PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines) are substances formed on the surface of well-done meat cooked at high temperatures. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recently concluded that the evidence that these two substances increase the risk of cancer in humans is "limited but suggestive."
PAHs, in particular, come from smoke, which is formed when fat drips from meat onto the grill. "Technically, anything that spends any time around smoke will contain some level of PAHs," explains Glen Weldon, head of education and communications at the AICR. The good news is many of the grilling suggestions in the first eight tips help reduce your intake of these two substances.
But what you grill is perhaps more important than how often you grill. A recently published AICR report concluded that diets high in red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and especially processed meats are a "convincing: cause of colorectal cancer."
Keep in mind that grilling vegetables and fruit produces negligible HCAs or PAHs. In fact, diets that are high in plant foods in general are associated with a reduced risk of several cancers.
Here are a few grilling suggestions to reduce your cancer risk:
- Use a low-fat marinade. Some research suggests that marinating meat (even briefly) significantly reduces the formation of HCAs. Including garlic and onions in the marinade may also help reduce HCA formation on cooked meat.
- Select leaner cuts (and trim any visible fat), to prevent dripping fat from causing flare-ups, which may deposit carcinogens on the meat.
- Flip the meat on the grill often. This will help reduce the amount of carcinogens that are potentially deposited on the meat.
- You can also reduce flare-ups by spreading aluminum foil on the grill. Make small holes in the foil to allow fat from the meat to drain.
Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 10: Just say no to processed meat.
The AICR report recommends limiting your consumption of cooked red meat to no more than 18 ounces per week (the equivalent of about 6 quarter-pound hamburgers). Things get more dismal for processed meats. When the AICR did an analysis of the available evidence, it found that every 3.5 ounces of processed meat eaten per day increased the risk for colorectal cancer by 42%. Processed meats include hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham, and cold cuts, among others.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.
Published May 23, 2008.