By Laura Kruskall, PhD, RD, CSSD, FACSM

Summer is the time to enjoy eating outdoors, and also the time many people try to stay slim and fit. Ironically, many traditional BBQ and picnic foods are high in calories, fat, or simply unhealthy. But, that simply doesn’t need to be the case as there are many options that can make our outdoor celebrations both healthy and delicious.

Tips For Healthy Grilling

Carcinogens are one thing to be mindful of when grilling. These are present in charred meat.  This doesn’t mean grilling is out – just use these easy steps to minimize the charring process.

  • Start with a clean grill
  • Marinate your protein. Marinades taste good and can prevent some meat from charring.
  • Keep an even temperature grill. Meat needs to reach a certain temperature to be safe (165 degrees for poultry, 160 for ground beef or pork, and 145-170 for steaks). However, this doesn’t mean cooking at the highest temperature or with a high flame.
  • Meats are ready to flip when it is loose without pulling too hard.
  • Cut meats into smaller portions so that they cook faster. This will reduce the severity of charring.
  • Avoid fatty meats (other reasons discussed below). The dripping fats cause flame flare ups and more charring.
  • Wrap fish in parchment paper and grill about 10 minutes. Add a spray of olive oil and add vegetables and seasonings as desired. The paper will prevent charring.

Lighten Up The Fare Not The Flavor

Foods we grill tend to be high in calories and saturated fat. Some simple changes can lighten meals.

  • Choosing lean meats can save a significant number of calories and fat. Lean meats contain approximately 45 calories and 1 to 3 grams of fat per ounce, while high-fat meats contain 100 calories and 8 or more grams of fat per ounce. Examples of lean meats include: Select or Choice grades of beef, pork loin/tenderloin, and white meat poultry without skin. When in doubt read labels. Choose a meat that is no more than 50 calories per ounce and/or 3 grams of fat per ounce.
  • Don’t be fooled by ground turkey!  Many people perceive ground turkey as healthier (lower in fat) than ground beef.  This may or may not be the case. Ground chicken or turkey can be very lean- if it is the breast meat without added skin. If the ground poultry includes dark meat and skin, it can be considered a high fat meat and contain many more calories and fat grams than lean ground beef.  Reading labels is critical.
  • The same holds true for cheese. Some cheeses are 100 plus calories per ounce while others may be half of that. Our traditional grilling favorites such as cheddar, American, Swiss, and Monterey Jack are those high-fat cheeses at 100 plus calories and 8 plus grams of fat per ounce. Choose a reduced-fat cheese that contains 3 grams of fat or less per ounce. Don’t worry- reduced-fat cheeses are still an excellent a great source of protein and calcium.  Only some of the fat is removed.
  • Not all sandwich buns are created equal! The traditional white sandwich bun is an average of 150-200 calories and contains little fiber. Rolls that are larger and denser contain even more calories.  If calories are a concern, it is easy to now find some whole grain sandwich thins that are only 100 calories each. Or, shun the bun and try something new like wrapping your burger or hot dog in a “better-for-you” wrap from La Tortilla Factory. If saving calories is not a priority, choosing a whole grain bun containing fiber is a great idea.  Look for buns that have 5 grams or more of fiber per serving.

Traditional grill favorites often include burgers, hot dogs, or chicken. How about trying something different? According to our new USDA Dietary Guidelines called MyPlate, half of our plate should be coming from plant foods. Did you know that grilling vegetables can be quite delicious? Here are some ideas to increase the amount of vegetable choices on our grill. An olive oil mister is a good tool to have so you can very lightly coat the vegetables before grilling without having too much oil dripping into the grill.

  • Grilled corn. Spray with a touch of olive oil and wrap in foil.  Grill on medium to high heat for 15-20 minutes.  TIP: if you want crunchy, popcorn like flavor, remove from foil and place directly on the grill until golden brown.  You can also purchase a corn basket to make it even easier to cook.
  • Asparagus. Lightly coat with olive oil and lay directly on grill.  Flip every minute or so for about 4 minutes.
  • Zucchini or squash. Cut into slices or strips and lightly coat with olive oil.  Place in foil or directly on the grill for 10 to15 minutes.
  • Potato “fries”: slice regular or sweet potatoes into thin wedges or slices.  Add a light spray of olive oil.  These come out best if placed on a cookie sheet.  Rotate as edges turn brown.
  • How about dessert? Grilled fruit can be delicious. Grilled peaches can be topped with a bit of light whipped cream and grilled pineapple can be drizzled with a touch of caramel sauce.  Just slice these fruits and grill until you see light brown grill marks and flip.  Another favorite- grilled bananas. Cut unpeeled bananas in half lengthwise.  Drizzle with a touch of brown sugar and honey. Grill open side for 2 minutes and peel side for 5 minutes. Remove peel and enjoy!

For healthy grilling recipes try these websites:

What About Side Dishes?

Picnics often have many alternatives to grilled foods, but some of our traditional sides like potato or pasta salads or coleslaw are loaded with fat and calories. How does something exotic like mango black bean or watermelon feta salad sound? These require very little prep work yet are so flavorful and healthy!

  • Mango black bean salad: 2 cans black beans (rinsed well), 1-2 mangos (cubed), ½ to 1 minced sweet onion, 2-4 T lime juice, few sprigs of fresh cilantro, minced.  Combine in a bowl and experiment with the proportions of ingredients to find a taste you love.  NOTE: pineapple can be substituted for mangos.
  • Watermelon feta salad: 4 cups of cubed watermelon, ½ to 1 sweet onion, ½ cup feta cheese.  Mix watermelon and onion. Top with crumbles feta cheese. Add a few sprigs of fresh mint if desired.
  • Instead of using mayonnaise in your coleslaw, use a non-fat honey mustard dressing or non-fat Greek yogurt.





















For more picnic recipes, go to: