Winter is FINALLY over and you know what that means – GRILLING SEASON. Whether you're simply cooking dinner for two or throwing a big outdoor bash, grilling can be a great way to cook not only for optimal flavor, but for good health.
Now, it is important to note that grilling food (particularly meat) does have its downsides and not all "grill food" is necessarily nutritious; however, there are a few tips and tricks to get the most out of your grill without sacrificing your overall health.
- Start smart. One way to prevent yourself (and your guests) from overeating the Calorie-laden grilled meats at a cook-out is to snack on nutritious appetizers. Choosing or serving appetizers rich in fiber will help to fill you up, without weighing you down. What is a "healthier appetizer" you ask? A few easy cook-out appetizers include: hummus with fresh vegetables (like celery, red pepper, and carrots), guacamole with corn chips, a lightened-up broccoli salad, lightly salted nuts, or fresh fruit served on toothpicks or skewers (like watermelon, cantaloupe, and strawberries). If you are attending a cook-out and aren't sure what to expect in the appetizer department, ask the host or hostess if you can bring something to share!
- Marinate mindfully. When it comes to marinating or seasoning meat, choose recipes with minimal sugar. It's totally fine to use sweeteners in your marinades or rubs in moderation (i.e., fruit juice, maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, etc.), but overdoing it can significantly increase Calories and encourage burning, leading to the formation of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds like PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines). Instead, opt for ingredients like Worcestershire sauce, low-sodium soy sauce, coconut aminos, tomato paste, and/or spices as the base of your marinade or dry rub, then just add sweeteners to taste (i.e., just a pinch!).
- Eat your veggies. Grill and eat as many veggies as your little heart desires! Vegetables are low in Calories and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a welcomed addition to your grilled meal. Veggies are pretty low-maintenance to cook on the grill, too. No need to marinate vegetables, as they naturally become more flavorful when grilled; simply coat your veggies in a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and slap those bad boys directly on the grill! Also, no need to worry about veggies reaching a safe internal temperature. The only real trick to grilling vegetables is cutting them into shapes and sizes that will cook well (and stay) on the grill. Go for bigger chunks, moderately-thin strips, or stacked kabobs for optimal caramelization and easy removal. A few veggies that cook particularly well on the grill include, red, white, or yellow onion (sliced into ½-inch thick rounds or 1-inch chunks strung on a skewer), whole mushrooms (grill portabellas like a burger or them cut into thick slices; grill small mushrooms strung on a skewer), bell peppers (grilled whole or cut into 1-inch chunks strung on a skewer), eggplant (cut lengthwise into ¼-inch slices), zucchini (cut lengthwise into ¼-inch slices or 1-inch chunks strung on a skewer), yellow squash (cut lengthwise into ¼-inch slices or 1-inch chunks strung on a skewer), and asparagus spears (just be sure to trim off the tough ends and grill the spears whole). And remember: never lay your freshly grilled veggies on the raw meat plate...
- Control carcinogens. It is important to keep in mind that harmful, cancer-causing compounds can form as a result of grilling food – particularly meat. However, you can limit these not-so-good effects by taking a few precautions: (1) Marinate your meat. Research suggests that marinating meat (even briefly) can significantly reduce the formation of HCAs (see above). (2) Select leaner cuts of meat (and trim the fat) to prevent dripping fat from causing flare-ups, which may deposit carcinogens on the meat. (3) Flip meat often to reduce the amount of carcinogens that are potentially deposited on the meat. (4) If flare-ups are an issue with your grill, use aluminum foil! Lay foil on the grill and make small holes to allow the meat fat to drain.
- Be savvy with servings sizes. Control serving sizes by grilling the meat in smaller portions! Prepare ¼-pound burgers instead of ⅓- or ½-pound patties, filet mignon-sized steaks instead of 10-ounce steaks, and kabobs made with small pieces of meat, mixed with vegetables. Or, provide smaller plates so as to physically limit the amount of food you and/or your guests can eat at one time.
- Choose unprocessed. The AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) report recommends limiting your consumption of cooked red meat to no more than 18 ounces per week (this would be about 6, ¼-pound hamburgers). However, things get a little more dicey when it comes to processed meats; the AICR found that every 3 ½ ounces of processed meat eaten per day increased the risk for colorectal cancer by 42%. YIKES. Processed meats include hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham, and some cold cuts, among others. So, choose unprocessed meats whenever possible, especially if they are being warmed or cooked on the grill!
Okay, now you've got the know-how, so get get 'em, grill master.