It’s no secret that cookouts often cater to your palate, not your physique. Here at Munchery, we believe that, even with the summer waning, it’s never too late to spark up the grill and challenge this paradigm. As we approach Labor Day, savor the remaining days of warm weather with a few more family barbecues—and check out our top eight nutritionist-approved suggestions to make your end-of-summer grilling healthier and tastier!
Favor Your Favorites
Before you head to the barbecue, ask yourself what you’re dying to eat. If it’s a BBQ pork sandwich, go easy on starchy sides like pasta and potato salads, and try to avoid chips—you can have those any day!—and dessert. Instead, fill the rest of your plate with greens and vegetables. If it’s a slice of pie with ice cream you’re craving, make sure to save room for it by replacing your main course with a leaner protein like fish.
Investigate Before Indulging
Before you start loading up your plate with grillables, salads, sides, chips, dip, and dessert, take a moment to check out all of the foods that are being offered. Make a mental list of the healthier foods you want—lean proteins and fresh vegetables, for example—as well as the foods that you want to indulge in. That way, you can balance your plate with healthy, nutrient-packed foods as well as a few summer treats without wasting calories on the food that you’re not thrilled about.
Get Over Overcooking
Grilling meat at high temperatures has been found to produce two types of chemicals: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are formed when amino acid-rich foods—chicken thighs, pork chops, that juicy T-bone—are cooked at a very high temperature (about 300°F or above), and PAHs are formed when fat burns and creates smoke, smoke that then deposits those PAHs onto the meat.
Keep the grill on a low heat setting, and flip meat frequently to avoid charring or burning. You can also cover the grates with perforated aluminum foil: the juices and fat can still drip through, but the foil will prevent at least some of the smoke from coming into contact with the meat. If your meat does get charred or burned, you can simply cut those parts off. If you love the smoky flavor of charred meat, recreate that flavor with vegetables or fruit. As we mentioned, HCAs and PAHs don’t form when produce is grilled. Grilled zucchini, corn, and bell peppers are obvious summer choices, but you can also get creative with these grilled salad recipes that feature grilled romaine, charred corn, and juicy peaches.
Lean into Lean
Start by choosing leaner cuts of meat; fat drippings are a key component of the formation of PAHs, so meat with less fat means less exposure to the carcinogenic compounds. Choose cuts like flank steak, sirloin, pork tenderloin, or leg of lamb. If you’re grilling burgers, add some chopped veggies to the patty: grilling vegetables doesn’t cause the formation of PAHs or HCAs. In fact, many vegetables contain healthful compounds that inhibit the carcinogenic activity of these compounds. Mushrooms are a great choice, as their meaty texture and earthy flavor blends well with beef.
Aid with Marinade
Here at Munchery, we like to look to marinades packed with herbs and spices—in addition to imparting flavor, many herbs and spices block the formation of HCAs. Rosemary, which may have the strongest research behind it, has been found to block HCA formation by 90%; other herbs like mint, thyme, basil, sage, and oregano, as well as turmeric, onion powder, and fresh garlic, have also shown to cut HCA formation by more than half. Acid-based marinades, like those prepared with lemon juice, vinegar, wine, or yogurt, are also beneficial. Beware of BBQ sauce: one study found that a honey BBQ sauce increased the formation of HCAs by 1.9-2.9 times. This was likely due to the high sugar content and the absence of nutrient-rich herbs and spices. If you must have BBQ sauce, slather some on at the end of cooking.
Think Beyond Burgers (and Hot Dogs)
Burgers and hot dogs may be traditional summer barbecue fare, but they’re often accompanied by oversized buns and calorie-heavy toppings. Slash some calories and add valuable nutrients by stepping outside of the burger box. Instead, try grilling up some fish, which is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. For a customizable option, try fish en papillote—wrap the fish in parchment paper and let guests top their fillets with aromatics, vegetables, herbs, and spices. Or, try chicken or lamb kebabs. By putting veggies between the meat pieces on your skewers, you’ll significantly up your nutritional intake.
There’s no need to ban alcohol completely—just make sure you come to the barbecue with a plan instead of gulping down whatever cocktail is handed to you. You might decide to alternate alcoholic drinks with glasses of water or to stick to a few glasses of your favorite rosé. But be wary of sugary cocktails: in addition to the extra calories, the combination of sugar and alcohol can raise your blood sugar substantially, leaving you hungrier and fatigued later in the night, when you may be more apt to chow down on the less healthy foods that you’d otherwise skip.
Bring a Healthy Side
If you’re headed to a barbecue that’s notorious for its fried chicken, saucy ribs, and ice cream floats, volunteer to bring a healthy side. In addition to being a helpful guest, you’ll guarantee that there’s at least one healthy option to choose from to balance out the rest. Bring a salad (potato salad doesn’t count!) packed with colorful vegetables; add flavor and texture with nuts, seeds, grains, fruits, or avocado.