When the weather warms up, it feels like the right time to fire up the grill! Grilling is one of the easiest, tastiest, and lower-fat ways to prepare meals. Grilling uses very little oil, and the fire adds so much flame-kissed flavor that even the leanest meats taste better when cooked outdoors. Cooking most foods on the grill is fast, too, which makes it easier to have fresh and nourishing dinners all summer long. An advantage of grilling is that it often focuses on higher protein, lower-carb foods; but always make sure to fit whatever you’re eating into your meal plan. Try these tips to make sure the meals cooked on your backyard grill are as nutritious and as flavorful as possible.
1. Choose the right foods to grill.
Opt for poultry and seafood, more often than beef, pork, or lamb. When you do enjoy red meat, choose cuts that are naturally lower in fat. Lean steaks such as sirloin, round, flank, T-bone, and filet mignon are perfect for grilling. If you’re craving a burger, choose ninety-five percent lean ground beef or make burgers with ground turkey or chicken breast. For pork, choose center cut pork loin chops or pork tenderloin. You can grill a pork tenderloin whole (they only weigh about a pound) or cut them into one-inch slices before grilling and enjoy “pork filet mignon.” If lamb is a favorite, lamb chops or boneless leg of lamb are the best lean cuts for grilling.
If you ordinarily avoid chicken breasts because of their sometimes bland flavor, marinate them or use a seasoning rub, then grill for a dinner that’s loaded with flavor. Turkey breast cutlets are an equally delicious option, and they cook in less than ten minutes. When seafood is on the menu, shrimp are often a grilling favorite. Don’t be intimidated by grilling fish – grilling fish fillets or steaks is one of the simplest ways to cook them at home. Choose sturdy fillets or steaks that will hold up on the grill rack: Salmon, tuna, halibut, and swordfish all work well. Avoid flaky, delicate fish, such as sole, flounder, or cod.
Don’t forget the veggies and fruits when you grill. Toss sliced zucchini, asparagus spears, or whole mushrooms with a little oil (just one or two teaspoons) and grill them along with the main dish. Even those who say they “hate” vegetables often devour them when they are flavored with flame. Don’t forget that dessert can be done outside too: Grilling fresh fruits, such as plums, peaches, and nectarines brings out their flavor. Simply cut them in half, brush lightly with oil, and grill for a minute or two on each side. Tip: grill fruits and veggies on a sheet of aluminum foil or use a grilling basket to make sure the pieces don’t fall into the flames.
2. Trim the fat, and be mindful of portion sizes.
Remove the skin from chicken and trim away any visible fat from steaks or chops before you marinate or season them for grilling. Removing the fat makes your meal lower in calories and saturated fat, and also lessens flare-ups from fat dripping on the coals; flare-ups may increase the amount of charring. The American Diabetes Association recommends cutting off any deeply charred parts of your meats.
Though the summery ads often show grills packed with sixteen-ounce steaks, a sensible portion of meat, poultry, or seafood is three to four ounces. If you grill a large steak, such as a sirloin, T-bone, or a flank, thinly slice it after grilling and serve each person a portion that is about the size of a deck of cards. (Read more about portion sizes here.)
3. Choose healthier marinades and seasonings.
Now that you’ve selected a lean meat and trimmed away the fat, don’t let the marinade or seasoning send the food into unhealthy territory. Marinades tenderize and add flavor to lean meats such as round steak, flank steak, or pork chops. Even naturally tender options like chicken breast, turkey breast cutlets, and shrimp will benefit from a short soak in a flavorful marinade.
The acidic ingredients in a marinade, like citrus juice or vinegar, is what tenderizes meats, so you only need to add a small amount of oil (a tablespoon or two). Limit sweet additions such as sugar, honey, or maple syrup. Some marinade recipes have a small amount of sweetener, which helps foods brown as they grill, but you need only a tiny bit – limit it to no more than a tablespoon in a recipe to serve four to six people. Avoid BBQ sauce and other bottled sauces, or use a very small amount, as they typically contain an astounding twenty-two grams of carbs in 1/4 cup (two ounces).
For safety, always marinate foods in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. Drain off and discard marinades used on meats, poultry, or seafood. If you want to use part of the marinade as a sauce, separate part of the marinade before you add the meat and refrigerate it until you are ready to serve.
I recommend seasoning rubs as well; they add flavor for very few calories. The only caution in using seasoning rubs is to check the label for the amount of sodium; some are extremely salty. If possible, buy salt-free seasoning rubs, and if you add salt to the food yourself, do it carefully, so it fits into your meal plan.
4. Grill once, eat twice.
When you grill, cook a bit extra, and give yourself the gift an additional meal. Extra grilled chicken breasts can make a chicken salad later in the week; another pork tenderloin may turn into sandwiches for lunch, or leftover vegetables can serve as a side dish for another meal.
To store the food for the next meal, place it on a clean platter and let it cool. Then, cover and refrigerate for up to four days. Doubling up on cooking takes very little extra effort and you’ll be rewarded with a head start on another wholesome and healthful meal.
5. Keep it clean and safe.
For healthier cooking and to keep foods from sticking, keep your grill rack clean. Always brush the rack with a wire brush after grilling to remove any bits of food. Then, before grilling again, preheat on high for fifteen minutes to burn off any debris and brush it away with a wire brush. After a few uses, if oils and residue build up on the grill, remove the rack from the grill and clean it with oven cleaner. Scrub the rack and rinse it well before you grill again. Don’t forget to clean the underside of the grill lid where build-up can form and flake off onto food.
To prevent foodborne illness, don’t use the same platter for cooked meats, poultry, or seafood as you do for raw food. Bring a second platter out to the grill, or wash the platter in hot, soapy water before using it for cooked food.
Invest in an inexpensive instant read thermometer to make sure meats are cooked to a safe temperature: Cook ground beef, pork, and lamb to 160°F; cook beef, pork, and lamb steaks and chops to 145°F, then let them rest for three minutes before eating; cook all poultry, including ground poultry, to 165°F.
Jackie Mills is a registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines as Cooking Light and Family Circle, as well as for books such as the American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor at Redbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience