Labor Day weekend may signal the end of summer. However, it may not be the last chance to barbeque, but it can be one of the best weekends to make it happen. Grilling can be one of the healthiest ways to cook food for your family. Not only does the grill’s heat enhance the natural flavors of food, but it also helps to minimize fat, which drips away during grilling. With a few tweaks, you can cut the fat even further — and fire up the flavor — for your menu by following this guide to healthy grilling for the Labor Day holiday.
“One of the great things about grilling is that you can grill so many different healthy foods,” says Sherri Hoyt, RDN, LD, Missouri Baptist Medical Center outpatient dietitian. “Chicken, seafood, turkey burgers, vegetables and even fruit — they’re all delicious when cooked on the grill.
“Fill the grill like you would fill your plate, with lots of colors,” Hoyt adds. “Choose lean proteins, like chicken or fish, trade pork steaks for a pork chop, and go easy on processed meats like hot dogs and bratwurst. If you want to grill hamburgers, use lean ground beef or, for a vegetarian option, try a black bean burger or use a portobello mushroom as your ‘burger.’”
Hoyt also recommends grilling corn on the cob or sweet potatoes as your starch, and she’s a big fan of grilled vegetables. “There are so many vegetables that are wonderful on the grill,” she says, “including zucchini, squash, bell peppers, mushrooms, green beans, okra, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, and asparagus, to name a few.”
Becca Hill, MS, RD, LD, Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital and Progress West Hospital lead clinical dietitian, agrees that vegetables are perfect for the grill. “Veggies are one of the easiest and most flavorful things to grill,” she says. “And they are rich in antioxidants, naturally low in fat and low in cholesterol.”
Hill offers a few pro tips for grilling vegetables. “You don’t want to let them slip through the grilling grates, so you’ll want to secure them with skewers or use a grilling basket,” she says. “And prep your vegetables by giving them a light brushing with a healthy oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper before throwing them on the grill.
Hill says marinating vegetables is a great way to infuse flavor and moisture into the veggies before cooking them on the grill — but she offers one caveat. “Never use leftover marinade that has been used for raw meat, poultry, or seafood items, because it can contain harmful bacteria and cause foodborne illness.” She also recommends swapping out store-bought traditional sides like canned baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad for homemade, healthier sides like fruit salad, cucumber salad or a leafy green salad.
If you’d like to end your meal with something sweet but want to avoid high-sugar desserts, Hoyt suggests grilled fruit. “Grilled fruit is an absolute treat and requires no added sugar,” she says. “Stone fruits — including peaches, apricots, nectarines, and plums — are great on the grill.
“Choose ripe but firm fruit for grilling. You can place the halved fruit on skewers or put them in a basket to prevent them from falling through the grates,” Hoyt says. “And make sure you clean your grill grates before you grill any fruit.”
How Can You Make Grilling Healthier?
Hill recommends the following tips:
- Eat more lean chicken and fish. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids and is a good source of protein.
- Go lean — choose lean cuts of meat, trim excess fat and remove skin before grilling to keep grilling lean and healthy.
- Reduce processed meats like hotdogs, sausage or pre-packaged hamburgers, which can be high in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
- Use low-sodium marinade before grilling to add flavor and not salt. Make a simple rub of your favorite spices, such as allspice, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, garlic powder, paprika or rosemary, and black pepper. Never reuse marinade or a rub after raw meat has touched it.
- Watch your portions — a healthy portion of any type of meat is about 3 ounces, or the size of a deck of cards, and no more than 6 ounces. Then, if you are still hungry, load up on veggies. The key is moderation and recognizing when you’re full.
- Once you’ve finished your plate, get moving, play with kids, or join in a yard game. This will keep you active and reduce the temptation to keep eating.
- Don’t forget to hydrate. To hydrate without extra calories, choose zero-calorie and low-calorie beverages such as fruit-infused or plain water.
Grilling Safety Tips
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), before you add those delicious chicken breasts or other healthy meats and food to the grill, give it a good cleaning. It is best to use a grill brush on your grates to remove any debris that can end up on your food. If you have time, you can remove the grates and give them a thorough wash with soap and water first. Other safety tips include:
- No matter what you’re grilling, always start with clean hands. You should especially wash your hands before and after touching raw meat, poultry, and seafood items to prevent the spread of foodborne illness bacteria.
- Keep your grill clean and remove any bits of charred food from the grate to prevent burning, smoking and bitter flavors the next time you use it.
- Always wash fruits and vegetables before preparing. Run fruits and vegetables under clean, running water and gently rub to remove any debris. Dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
- Never wash or rinse meat, poultry, or seafood items. Doing so greatly increases your risk of cross-contamination because bacteria can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. Be sure to thoroughly clean and then sanitize all surfaces touched by the raw meat, including the inner sink, to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination.
- Always keep your raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods, such as salads, dips, and any fruits and vegetables you plan to grill. As soon as you put raw items on the grill, wash or discard the plate they were on and get a clean plate or serving dish ready for when the items are done.
- You should also pay attention to the utensils used while grilling — those tongs you used to place the raw meat on the grill could be contaminated with harmful bacteria, which could spread to the fully cooked meat being pulled off the grill. Wash the tongs or use a pair that hasn’t touched raw meat. Use tongs instead of a fork to turn meat. Piercing the meat with a fork can release juices and fat that can cause flame flare-ups.
- Grilling uses direct high heat to cook foods — it’s what gives them the classic grill marks that everyone loves to see. However, those marks can make items look done before they are. This can be a major safety issue. When grilling meat, poultry and fish, it’s important to use a food thermometer to make sure your items are truly being cooked through to a safe minimum internal temperature.
- Keep flames from touching the meat directly. Create a barrier to prevent juices from spilling and producing harmful smoke. Try lining the grill with aluminum foil and poking holes, and cooking on cedar planks.
“It is very important to cook your food to the right temperature to avoid any foodborne illnesses,” says Brittney Lamm, RDN, Alton Memorial Hospital registered dietitian, “and to not overcook it.”
The recommended safe internal temperature varies depending on the product you’re cooking, so use this list from the USDA to know what temperature you should cook your food:
- Beef, pork, lamb, and veal (steaks, roasts and chops): 145°F (with a 3-minute rest time)
- Ground meats (including burgers and hot dogs): 160°F
- Whole poultry, poultry breasts, and ground poultry: 165°F
- Fish: 145°F.
Once the correct temperature is reached, it’s time to make your plate. Hill offers one more suggestion for a healthy meal. “Remember to make your plate healthy by balancing it with fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains,” Hill adds. “Fill half your plate with fruits and veggies and the other half with lean protein and whole grains.”