Weeknight Grilling Made Healthier

Who says you need to wait for the weekend to fire up the grill?

by Holly Pevzner Health Writer

While firing up the BBQ is often touted as a fun weekend activity, it can also be one of the fastest and easiest ways to get a meal on the table any day. Grilling doesn’t have to mean less-healthy meals. It’s what you grill—and how you grill it—that matters. For instance, “grilling is a great way to give a lot of flavor to lower fat foods that are harder to cook in other ways,” says Julie LG Lanford, R.D., registered dietitian nutritionist at Cancer Services, a survivorship nonprofit in Winston-Salem, NC. Before you plan your menu, find out how to get the most flavor—and the most nutrition—out of your next grill night.

Start Clean

A clean grill heats up evenly, cooks more efficiently, and won’t transfer old fat, oil, crud, and unwanted flavors to your meals. "Be sure to prepare your food on a clean workspace and cutting boards to reduce risk of cross contamination between uncooked meat and produce," says Cassie Vanderwall, Ph.D, R.D., manager of ambulatory nutrition and health education programming at UW Health, the integrated health system of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And keep that grill surface spik-and-span, too. A clean grill heats up evenly, cooks more efficiently, won’t transfer old fat, oil, crud, and unwanted flavors to your meals. But instead of using a wire-bristle grill brush, consider a pumice-like grill stone or crumbled aluminum foil. University of Missouri researchers found that the wire in bristle brushes can land in food, leading to painful mouth and throat injuries, which sent over 1,600 folks to the ER over a 12-year period.

Choose the Best Meats

If meat is on the menu, stick with lean cuts of beef like flank steak, tenderloin, or sirloin. “Opt for thinner cuts over thick cuts—and always trim the fat first,” says Lanford. “Thinner cuts cook quicker and less fat is not only healthier, it means less fat will drip into the grill.” This is important because reduced grill-time means your food will be exposed to fewer heterocyclic amines (HCA), potentially cancer-causing chemicals that form when proteins in meat are exposed to high temperatures. “And when fat drips into the grill, the flames can cover food with polyaromatic hydrocarbons, PAH, which is another probable human carcinogen,” says Lanford.

Think Kabob for Health

“I love to grill kabobs with onions, peppers, and meat,” says Lanford. “I’ll also do Brussels sprouts in the grill basket and some corn on the cob.” She quarters the sprouts, microwaves them for about three minutes before grilling to speed up the cook-time, and tosses in oil before placing them in a basket. “For the kabobs, I coat everything in olive oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and grill for roughly 10 minutes—the same amount of time it takes for the Brussel sprouts,” says Lanford. Stir the sprouts every 3 to 5 minutes and flip the kabobs half way through.“ And if you’re using bamboo skewers, soak them in water first so they don't burn up!” says Lanford.

Skip the Char

“Because charred and well-done grilled proteins contain carcinogenic compounds HCA and PAH, I like my grilled meats to be rare or medium-rare,” says Vanderwall. To avoid charring, thoroughly thaw meat before grilling, trim the fat, remove skin, partially pre-cook meat, and “cook foods near the outside of the flame, instead of directly over it,” says Lanford. For the perfect grilled steak, Vanderwall dry rubs her top round with fresh garlic, pepper, and kosher salt and lets it sit for anywhere between 15 minutes to 2 hours. “Since undercooked meat is dangerous, you want your medium-rare steak to reach between from 130°F to 135°F,” says Vanderwall, noting that a rare steak should reach 125°F, plus allow three minutes of resting time.

Don’t Forget the Marinade

Marinated meats and fish taste great, but there are other reasons to give your meal a flavor bath before grilling: “Marinades create a protective barrier on the outside of the meat that prevents flames from forming potential carcinogens,” says Lanford. Also, “marinades add strong flavors, they’re packed with vitamins, and often contain potent antioxidants that further block the formation of the harmful HCA and PAH,” says Vanderwall. An hour-long fish or veggie soak should do the trick (shoot for at least one to two hours for meat and poultry). Not into making your own marinade? No worries: A typical store-bought marinade reduces these potential carcinogens just as well.

Try These Marinades

“I love to add antioxidant-rich berries to a balsamic vinaigrette for a fantastic marinade,” says Vanderwall, who notes that her very favorite marinated meal is Asian-inspired chicken breast with a side of grilled pineapple. To make the marinade, let the chicken bathe in a mix of garlic, fresh ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and honey. At the same time, core and slice the pineapple into ½ inch thick rounds, lightly brush with oil, and grill until tender, or about 7 to 10 minutes with a mid-cook flip. Because pineapples are high in sugar, they caramelize beautifully over the heat of the grill. “And to ensure the breast is thoroughly cooked, the internal temperature needs to reach 165°F,” says Vanderwall.

Grill Burgers Like This

When making your patties, be sure to incorporate garlic directly into the ground meat. A report in the Natural Medicine Journal notes that this practice can lower HCA production by more than 60%. (Adding in some turmeric or rosemary can lower HCA, too, as can folding some pepper into the mix.) It’s also a good idea to replace about ⅓ of the lean beef with a purée of mushrooms to up the juiciness and cut the fat. And once your burgers are on the grill, be sure to flip them frequently. The same report notes that this practice prevents the meat from reaching as high a temperature, thereby reducing the HCAs formed.

Foil-Wrap Some Fish

“Grilling fish outdoors means no lingering fishy odor and you’ll add a unique and appealing flavor to fish, perfect for those who are more wary of seafood,” says Vanderwall. To make clean-up easy; reduce cooking time; and to provide a layer of protection from the flame, so that the carcinogens are less likely to form, wrap your fish in foil, says Lanford. Season with salt, pepper, and any other spices you like; drizzle with olive oil; and top with a citrus slice.) “Also add enough broth or lemon juice so that the fish is sitting in liquid, but not covered,” says Lanford. “This’ll ensure no char forms.” Fold edges up tent-like, so steam can’t escape and grill for 7 to 10 minutes.

Grill Shrimp Like This

Vanessa Rissetto, R.D., co-founder of Culina Health, a personalized nutrition coaching service, loves to marinate jumbo or colossal size shrimp in the juice from one lime, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, ⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, and about 5 cloves of garlic. (Be sure to remove the shell and de-vein before grilling.) You can either toss the shrimp in a basket or skewer and cook. “This grills to perfection in about 6 to 8 minutes, flipping at the halfway mark,” says Rissetto. “It's light and fresh and has a great summer vibe without any heaviness.” she says. When ready, the shrimp will turn a pink on the outside, opaque white inside, and the tails curl inward.

Get Your Vegetables On

“Grilling vegetables not only makes them softer, it releases their natural sugars, making them sweeter, and often, more appealing to eat,” says Rissetto. For best results, cut zucchini and eggplant lengthwise into meaty rectangles; seed and quarter bell peppers; and peel and quarter onions through the root before brushing with oil and tossing them on the grill. (The more surface area touching the grill, the more caramelized flavor they’ll have.) Meanwhile, Lanford is a fan of grilling cruciferous veggies, like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. “They’re known for cancer preventive properties and you can slice broccoli and cauliflower in 3-inch pieces so they can go directly on the grill,” she says. (Grill for 3 to 5 minutes per side or until tender.)

Placement Counts

Situate your veggies near the back of the grill where it’s usually the hottest. “I think 400°F is the perfect temperature for vegetables,” says Rissetto. “Also, be sure to space your vegetables out, so they don’t stick together.” (Try keeping about a quarter of the grill food-free, so you can move food as needed.) For hearty peppers and onions, grill for about 8 to 10 minutes; change that to about 7 minutes for eggplant, squash, and zucchini; and about 2 to 4 minutes for asparagus. And flip each half-way through. “I like to grill a combo of zucchini, summer squash, button mushrooms, bell peppers, and red onion,” says Vanderwall, who uses a balsamic vinaigrette instead of oil before grilling.

Make Mushrooms Part of Your Meal

Grilling mushrooms actually makes them healthier, concluded a study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. Researchers found that polyphenol and antioxidant activity significantly increased when mushrooms were grilled. And there were no big nutritional losses when mushrooms were cooked this way, which is great since mushrooms are packed with vitamin D, fiber, selenium, and B vitamins. Brush your mushroom of choice with olive oil and place portabella caps directly on the grates. For creminis or white button, a skewer sometimes works better. It takes between 7 and 10 minutes to cook all of the above, but if you’re grilling whole mushrooms, it’ll likely take about 15 minutes. (Don’t forget to flip at the midway point.)

Holly Pevzner
Meet Our Writer
Holly Pevzner

Holly Pevzner specializes in creating health, nutrition, parenting and pregnancy content for a variety of publications, such as EatingWell, Family Circle, Parents, and Real Simple. Before becoming a full-time writer, Holly held senior staff positions at Prevention, Fitness, and Self magazines, covering medical health and psychology. She was also a contributing editor at Scholastic Parent & Child magazine. She resides with her family in Brooklyn, New York.