How to Make Better-For-You Meals on the Grill

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Grilling food outdoors is one of the great pleasures of summer. Here are some tips for making healthy meals on the grill.

Cooking over an open flame is such a relaxing way to prepare foods – everything looks, tastes and smells great, and cleanup is usually a breeze. And, generally speaking, grilling is a pretty healthy way to prepare meat, fish and poultry. Grilling also seems to bring people together – ever notice how everyone seems to gather around the barbecue when foods are cooking?

For all it has going for it, though, there are a few downsides to typical barbecue-type meals that you may want to consider. First, many people choose fattier cuts of meat for grilling, but those can add significantly more calories, fat and saturated fat to your meal than leaner cuts. And many of the traditional side dishes that are often served at a barbecue – like potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans – can drive up the calorie count of the meal, too.

The last thing to consider is that cooking meat, fish or poultry over extremely high heat increases your exposure to certain chemical compounds that may be damaging to your health. Compounds called HCAs are formed when meat, fish or poultry is exposed to high heat cooking. Other compounds (known as PAHs) form when fat and juices from meat fall into the open flame, creating smoke. The smoke rises, brings the PAHs with it, and clings to the meat’s surface.

The good news is that you can make meals healthier by starting with the right cuts of meat and paying a bit more attention to preparation. You can also make some healthy swaps for traditional side dishes, and even dessert. Here are some tips for healthier meals from the grill:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat. Leaner cuts are healthier in general and will release fewer drippings onto the coals, which will reduce your exposure to PAHs.
  • Use a flavorful marinade. Marinades that include acid (such as vinegar, citrus or yogurt) help tenderize lean cuts of meat. Oil in your marinade helps form a bit of a protective barrier against HCA formation, and herbs (particularly rosemary, basil, thyme, sage and oregano) help to partially block the formation of both HCAs and PAHs.
  • Cook meats low and slow. Many people overload their grills with fuel, making them extremely hot. When meat is tossed onto a very hot grill, it tends to get charred on the outside (again, something you want to avoid), while the inside remains undercooked.
  • Partially precook and flip often. You can partially precook your meats for a few minutes in the microwave before transferring them to the grill. This will reduce the amount of time the meat is exposed to high temperatures, and it helps keep flavorful juices in, rather than dripping onto the hot coals. Once on the grill, flip your food frequently using tongs or a spatula to reduce charring.
  • Make healthier side dishes and dessert. Instead of the traditional baked beans that are often loaded with sugar – and, sometimes, fatty bacon – heat plain canned beans with salsa for a spicy side dish. Rather than mayonnaise-heavy potato salad and coleslaw, toss your usual mixture with a vinaigrette salad dressing instead. And put the grill to use for your side dishes, too – veggies like eggplant, peppers, corn and zucchini are delicious grilled. For a special, healthy dessert, try grilling slices of firm fruits like pineapple, peach halves or mango. Grilling caramelizes their natural sugars and adds a depth of flavor. Another plus: HCAs and PAHs don’t form on grilled fruits and vegetables.
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