Summertime, and the grilling is easy. Grilling (fast and high heat) and barbecuing (slow and low heat) are a great way to hang out with friends and enjoy the sizzling flavors of the season. But, if you burn your meats, fish and poultry to get a good char, cancerous carcinogens can form. That doesn’t mean we’d ever give up our thrill of the grill. With just a few simple ‘cue tips, you can keep up your healthy habits without sacrificing flavor and fun.
Choose High-Quality Protein
Start by getting the best ingredients. Burgers, steak and chicken are classic cookout fare, and enjoying them healthfully is as simple as choosing well at the supermarket, butcher shop or farmer’s market. Look for sustainably raised meats, ideally 100% grass-fed, grass-finished beef and organic chicken. When animals are raised in their natural environment and allowed to roam on pasture, they are healthiest and therefore the most nutritious to consume. You’ll also avoid added hormones and antibiotics.
Hot dogs and sausages are OK as a sometimes treat; when indulging in these, look for brands made with nitrate-free, ideally organic and pastured meat.
If seafood is more your speed, choose sustainable wild-caught fish like cod or Alaskan salmon, which are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Avoid fish with higher concentrations of mercury, like swordfish and tuna. Shop savvy with fish-buying guides by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute.
A good sear on meat is one thing, but too much char can be dangerous. Very high-heat cooking (like over a very hot flame on the grill) can cause the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), chemicals that may increase the risk of some cancers. Luckily, they’re easy to avoid. Start meat in the oven and finish it on the grill, or cook it to medium rare over a more moderate flame. Choosing smaller cuts and making kebabs instead of selecting larger cuts keeps grilling time shorter, too.
Another way to keep HCAs away is to be strategic with marinades. Brushing on a thin layer to avoid charring, marinating meats ahead of cooking, and using acidic marinades with lemon or cider vinegar can be helpful. It’s best to use a low- or no-sugar marinade to avoid charring. Marinating meat in red wine or beer for six hours prior to grilling has been shown to substantially reduce the amount of HCAs (though the meat will be mushy). Another way to reduce exposure is to use a rack or cedar plank on the grill; wild salmon is especially tasty prepared this way.
Fill Out Meals Wisely
Instead of energy-sapping chips, fries and goopy potato or macaroni salad, opt for lots of greens and other fresh vegetables on the side at cookouts. Farmers markets are bursting with leafy greens and other colorful produce all summer, so take advantage. Lightly grill some eggplant and zucchini slices, drizzle good olive oil over lush fresh tomatoes (sprinkle on some chopped fresh herbs, too), toss a quick salad. All make perfect accompaniments to grilled proteins and will fill you with nutrients to fuel your summer adventures.
Condiments are another area where you can make a few simple tweaks for a far healthier meal. Look for barbecue sauces, ketchup and other toppers made with very little sugar (some are made with unrefined types like maple syrup and honey, too), slather on healthy mustard, and look for fermented pickles, sauerkraut and relishes in the refrigerated section of the supermarket.
Putting that burger on a bun? Look for brands that use easier-to-digest sprouted grains or gut-healthy sourdough.
It seems obvious (have fun at a cookout? Duh), but it’s worth mentioning that while you’re keeping tabs on your healthy habits all summer, it’s OK to relax and enjoy. If your friend brings her famous mac and cheese to a barbecue or there’s a particularly amazing-looking dessert, have some, truly savor it, and move on, no guilt.
Also remember to really take the time to enjoy the company. Part of what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy is the tradition of slowing down and enjoying meals with family and friends. Inspired?
Inspired? Try some of these healthy grilled recipes:
Also published on Medium.