The kickoff to summer grilling season might look a little different this year thanks to the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean you have to forgo your cookouts altogether. You can still fire up the grill for your own family or a small gathering. Just keep social distancing and other precautions in mind.
And if you’re looking for healthier ways to use your grill this season, we’ve got you covered. There’s no need to fill up on heavy carbs to enjoy a meal in the great outdoors. In fact, your grill can make nutritious food even more delicious with minimal effort.
With the right entrees, sides and desserts, you can load up your plate without an ounce of grilling guilt.
The Main Course
Main dishes are the star of the backyard barbecue. Choose lean proteins as your first step to crafting an all-around healthy summer meal.
Poultry has long been touted as a healthier alternative to beef and pork. Want to kick up your chicken into something special? Use seasoned olive oil, a Greek yogurt marinade or a dry rub.
Both light meat and dark meat fit well into your grilling repertoire. Light-meat cuts of chicken, though, are usually considered the healthiest because of their lower fat content. On the other hand, the dark-meat portions are less prone to drying out on the grill, and they contain higher amounts of nutrients like zinc. Whichever cut you choose, you’ll spare yourself calories by removing the skin before cooking.
If you’re bored just thinking about chicken every night, try thinking outside the seasoning box. Mix up your flavors with a new seasoning each time or varying your presentation. For instance, you might try:
- Chicken skewers with various vegetables, like summer squash and tomatoes
- An entire spatchcocked bird rubbed in your favorite spice blend
- Chicken served over fresh green salads, quinoa bowls or even tortillas
Chicken might seem like it doesn’t have enough punch on its own, but that makes it the ideal vehicle for your culinary creativity.
Chicken isn’t the only protein worth grilling for health. In fact, there are plenty of proteins in the sea. Seafood is a great choice for grilling. And it’s easier to prepare than you think.
Our top pick? Start with salmon. This fish is rich in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. For the biggest nutritional benefit, choose wild-caught salmon over the farm-raised variety. Lemon pepper, soy sauce, dill and lime are all good seasoning options that take your fish to the next level.
Swordfish and tuna are two other must-have fish varieties for the grill. Both come in steak form. These firm cuts are substantial enough to sit right on the grates without crumbling. Not sure where to find fish steaks? Just ask your grocery’s butcher in the meat department if you don’t have a fish market handy.
Foil packs of shrimp also work well on the grill, or you can slide them onto skewers. Shrimp is a good dinner choice for nights when you’re in a hurry. Depending on size, shrimp only need to cook for a couple minutes per side. And like chicken, shrimp really take on the flavors you use. Go bold with spicy seasonings or simple with citrus.
Grills and burgers just seem to go hand in hand. Opting for healthy eating doesn’t have to mean forgoing this fan-favorite entirely. Instead, replace traditional beef patties with a leaner ground meat, such as turkey or chicken. Stir finely diced mushrooms into the patty mixture to reduce the fat content and increase the nutritional value.
Rethink your sandwich-delivery method, too. For example, choose whole-grain buns or wrap your patty in a large lettuce leaf. You could even skip the bun entirely. Set the patty on your plate, pile it high with tomatoes and onions, and dig in with a knife and fork.
Remember: grilled sandwiches don’t have to include meat. Portobello mushrooms make a great plant-based substitute for beef burgers, as does a black bean mix. And summer squash slices marinated in olive oil and cooked in a grill basket are just right for piling on a sturdy roll.
Healthy main dishes deserve light and flavorful sides. Use plenty of hearty fruits and vegetables. Produce-rich accompaniments can be full of flavor without weighing you down. Go for a rainbow of colors to dress up your plate and increase the variety of nutrients.
Nearly any vegetable can find its way onto your grill. Some tips:
- Large vegetables — such as peppers, onions and summer squash — should be chunked in halves or quarters to speed up their cooking time.
- Thinner vegetables like asparagus and carrots can be left whole. The same goes for small, round items like cherry tomatoes and button mushrooms.
- To enhance the flavor, lightly brush your veggies with olive oil and add a sprinkle of salt before placing them on the grill.
- Soak corn on the cob (husks and all) in water for about 30 minutes before cooking. This keeps the husks from burning as the tender kernels cook.
- At the end of the cooking time, garnish your dishes with just a splash of lemon juice.
Don’t be shy about adding both vegetables and fruit to your savory dishes, either.
For a bright, fresh salad, grill cubed watermelon until char marks appear. Then toss the fruit with sliced tomatoes, cubed avocados or fresh basil.
A grill basket also comes in handy for making a fruit salad. Cube a variety of fruits, like pieces of pear, cantaloupe, pineapple and plum. Cook them in the basket over high heat until grill marks appear. Finish the salad off with a quick squirt of lime juice.
Grilled desserts can be both healthy and indulgent. With just a few twists, grilled fruits go from side dishes to end-of-the-meal treats.
A light dressing will help bring out the natural sweetness of fruit. Try a drizzle of maple syrup over halved peaches or a honey glaze for pears. Just keep an eye out so the sugar doesn’t burn. Balsamic vinegar and vanilla extract are other good dressings to try.
You can even cut a slit in a banana peel and pour your dressing of choice right in. Add a little brown sugar for good measure. And leave the peel on while the banana cooks.
If fruit alone doesn’t count as dessert to you, grilling it might be the key to changing your mind.
But for a little something extra, try:
- Serving a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a grilled pineapple ring;
- Making a sundae topped with balsamic-glazed cherries; or
- Toasting a slice of angel food cake on the grill and topping it with fresh or glazed fruit
Once you’re done, go ahead and lick your dessert plate clean. With a meal that’s nutritious from start to finish, you’ve earned every last drop of grilled goodness.