It’s that time of year again when the weather is good for grilling outside. You may already know that choosing grilled foods over fried foods generally reduces the calorie density of food—but to make your grilled food choices healthy, you will want to look at how you are grilling as well as what you are grilling.
How to Grill Healthfully
One major tip for healthy grilling is simple: Don’t burn the meat, poultry (chicken and turkey), and seafood. Although there isn’t clear evidence that grilling animal products directly increases cancer risk, experts at the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) warn that charring meat, poultry and seafood while cooking at high temperatures in the presence of smoke forms substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can cause changes in our DNA that may lead to cancer.
To avoid formation of PAHs and HCAs:
Marinate meat, poultry and fish in an acidic marinade (containing vinegar, lemon juice, orange juice or wine, along with herbs and spices). Studies show that marinating in this type of marinade for at least 30 minutes prior to grilling can decrease the formation of HCAs by as much as 90%.
Choose lean cuts of meat and trim excess fat before grilling. Potentially cancer-causing PAHs form in the smoke when fat from meat, poultry or fish drips onto the heat source. That PAH-filled smoke then coats your food.
Cook at a lower temperature and flip meat frequently to reduce charring.
Avoid flare-ups and keep juice from dripping into the fire. Cover the grill with aluminum foil and puncture the foil with tiny holes.
Trim off any charred flesh before eating.
Precook food. Cook meat, poultry or fish in the oven or microwave for 2-5 minutes, then finish cooking on the grill. Less grill time means less exposure to potentially cancer-causing substances.
Choose gas over wood or charcoal. You will have more flame and flare-ups with wood and charcoal, which can increase charring and smoke contact with meat, creating both PAHs and HCAs.
What to Grill for Good Health
Limit processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, bratwurst and bacon. According to the AICR, even small amounts of processed meats, if eaten regularly, can increase your risk for colorectal and stomach cancer.
Limit red meat. Diets high in red meat increase your risk of colorectal cancer. The AICR recommends limiting red meat to
12-18 ounces of cooked red meat (beef, pork, lamb or venison) per week.
Choose to grill poultry and seafood more often. Fish such as salmon and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to decrease inflammation in the body, promote heart health and possibly benefit brain health as well.
Grill plant-based foods such as veggie burgers, fruits and marinated vegetables. Grilling fruits and vegetables produces no HCAs or PAHs and poses no potential cancer risks. In fact, diets high in plant foods are associated with reduced risk of several cancers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food poisoning cases rise in the summer months, when warm temperatures increase the growth rate of bacteria in our foods. Be mindful of the following CDC food safety principles when planning to grill:
When shopping for meat, poultry or seafood, add them to your cart last, keep them separated from other foods and keep them chilled/refrigerated below 40 degrees Fahrenheit until ready to grill.
Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat, poultry and seafood. It is also important to wash your work surfaces, grill and utensils before and after cooking meat, poultry and seafood.
Use a food thermometer to check that your grilled foods reach an internal temperature that will kill any foodborne pathogens:
Beef, pork, lamb, veal, fish: 145 degrees F
Hamburger and other ground meats: 160 degrees F
Poultry: 165 degrees F
After grilling, discard any marinades or sauces that have touched raw juices of meat, fish or poultry. Use a clean plate to serve the grilled food. Refrigerate or freeze any leftover grilled meats, fish or poultry within 2 hours of cooking—or within 1 hour of cooking, if the air temperature is above 90 degrees F.
Grilled Chicken Fajitas
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
(about 6 ounces each)
½ cup canola oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup lime juice
¼ cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
12 flour tortillas (8-inch)
6 cups shredded lettuce
2 cups chopped tomato
3 ripe avocados, peeled, seeded and sliced
2 cups of your favorite salsa
For the marinade, whisk together oil, vinegar, lime juice, onion, garlic, sugar, oregano, salt, pepper and cumin in a shallow, nonmetal container.
One at a time, place each chicken breast on a cutting board, place a sheet of plastic wrap over chicken and pound to an even ½-inch thickness.
Add chicken to the marinade, turning to coat each side, then cover and refrigerate for 4 hours, turning occasionally.
Prepare grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350-450 degrees F).
Wrap 6 tortillas each in 2 foil packets.
Remove chicken from marinade, discard marinade and place chicken on the grill. Grill with lid closed until chicken is no longer pink and a meat thermometer reads 165 degrees F. This should take 6-8 minutes, turning once. At the same time, warm the tortilla packets over direct heat for 2-4 minutes, turning once.
Place chicken on a clean cutting board and slice crosswise into ¼-inch strips. Transfer to a clean bowl or plate and serve with the warmed tortillas, lettuce, tomato, avocado and salsa.
Grilled Summer Vegetables
4 ounces baby bella mushrooms
1 yellow squash
1 bunch thick asparagus
1 red bell pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
¼ cup balsamic vinegar reduction or your favorite salad dressing
Preheat the grill to medium heat (350-450 degrees F).
Chop the mushrooms in half. Trim the ends of the eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and onion, and cut into slices of 1/3-inch to ½-inch. Seed the red bell pepper and cut into quarters. Trim the asparagus ends.
Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper. Place the vegetables in a grill basket or grill pan and grill with the lid closed until tender and lightly charred all over—about 8-10 minutes for the bell peppers, onion and mushroom, and
5-7 minutes for the yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant and asparagus.
Sprinkle with fresh basil and drizzle with balsamic vinegar reduction or a dressing of your choice. Serve warm, cold or at room temperature.