How to Make Better-For-You Meals on the Grill

24 Sep
Posted by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training
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Make healthy meals on the grill.

Grilling food outdoors is one of the great pleasures of summer. Here are some tips for making healthy meals on the grill.

Cooking over an open flame is such a relaxing way to prepare foods – everything looks, tastes and smells great, and cleanup is usually a breeze. And, generally speaking, grilling is a pretty healthy way to prepare meat, fish and poultry. Grilling also seems to bring people together – ever notice how everyone seems to gather around the barbecue when foods are cooking?

For all it has going for it, though, there are a few downsides to typical barbecue-type meals that you may want to consider. First, many people choose fattier cuts of meat for grilling, but those can add significantly more calories, fat and saturated fat to your meal than leaner cuts. And many of the traditional side dishes that are often served at a barbecue – like potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans – can drive up the calorie count of the meal, too.

The last thing to consider is that cooking meat, fish or poultry over extremely high heat increases your exposure to certain chemical compounds that may be damaging to your health. Compounds called HCAs are formed when meat, fish or poultry is exposed to high heat cooking. Other compounds (known as PAHs) form when fat and juices from meat fall into the open flame, creating smoke. The smoke rises, brings the PAHs with it, and clings to the meat’s surface.

The good news is that you can make meals healthier by starting with the right cuts of meat and paying a bit more attention to preparation. You can also make some healthy swaps for traditional side dishes, and even dessert. Here are some tips for healthier meals from the grill:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat. Leaner cuts are healthier in general and will release fewer drippings onto the coals, which will reduce your exposure to PAHs.
  • Use a flavorful marinade. Marinades that include acid (such as vinegar, citrus or yogurt) help tenderize lean cuts of meat. Oil in your marinade helps form a bit of a protective barrier against HCA formation, and herbs (particularly rosemary, basil, thyme, sage and oregano) help to partially block the formation of both HCAs and PAHs.
  • Cook meats low and slow. Many people overload their grills with fuel, making them extremely hot. When meat is tossed onto a very hot grill, it tends to get charred on the outside (again, something you want to avoid), while the inside remains undercooked.
  • Partially precook and flip often. You can partially precook your meats for a few minutes in the microwave before transferring them to the grill. This will reduce the amount of time the meat is exposed to high temperatures, and it helps keep flavorful juices in, rather than dripping onto the hot coals. Once on the grill, flip your food frequently using tongs or a spatula to reduce charring.
  • Make healthier side dishes and dessert.Instead of the traditional baked beans that are often loaded with sugar – and, sometimes, fatty bacon – heat plain canned beans with salsa for a spicy side dish. Rather than mayonnaise-heavy potato salad and coleslaw, toss your usual mixture with a vinaigrette salad dressing instead. And put the grill to use for your side dishes, too – veggies like eggplant, peppers, corn and zucchini are delicious grilled. For a special, healthy dessert, try grilling slices of firm fruits like pineapple, peach halves or mango. Grilling caramelizes their natural sugars and adds a depth of flavor. Another plus: HCAs and PAHs don’t form on grilled fruits and vegetables.

Cut Back on Candy and Tame Your Sweet Tooth

16 Sep
Posted by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training
Choose natural sweets for occasional treats.

Taming a sweet tooth—what’s the best approach?

My husband has a ferocious sweet tooth. If he had his way, he’d start his day with a cookie and end it with a bowl of ice cream. People who know this about him think this is just hilarious—given that he’s married to a dietitian. They love to tease him—as in, “I’ll bet she keeps you on a tight leash,” but that just isn’t my style. It isn’t up to me to tame his sweet tooth—all I can do is to try to control how much (and what) is available in the house. The rest is up to him.

When I talk to clients, the issue of how to handle sweets in the diet comes up all the time. Since every situation is different, each household may have to figure this out for themselves. Some people never keep sweets in the house—but for many, that just makes them “forbidden fruit,” and all the more desirable. Others use sweets only as tools for reward or punishment—a practice that often extends way back to childhood.

Then there are those who try to make the issue less emotionally charged—sort of “neutralizing” sweets. I have a friend like this. He serves dessert to his kids once in a while—but he’ll set it on the table right along with the grilled chicken, the green beans and the salad. His reasoning—and there is some logic to this—is that if sweets are just ‘part of the meal,’ they’d lose their significance as a reward or a treat.

It’s a thorny issue, to be sure, so here are some things worth considering.

Try not to use sweets as a reward or withhold them as a punishment

Whether you do this to yourself or with family members, this is a tactic best avoided. Many of my overweight clients remember as kids being given bags of mini-cookies to ‘keep them quiet,’ or having sweets taken away if they behaved badly. Not surprising that they grow up to have a love-hate relationship with sweets, which are now the most emotionally charged foods in their diet. As adults, they now turn to sweets for comfort – but they’re also wracked with guilt whenever they eat them.

You might find that keeping sweets out of the house entirely can work

Many parents take this approach with their kids, but it’s important to remember that kids will still be exposed to sweets, will still ask for them, and—despite their best efforts—will probably figure out a way to get them one way or another. Oh, and this doesn’t just apply just to kids, by the way. Last week while doing laundry—and this has happened more than once—I pulled a few candy wrappers from the pockets of my husband’s cargo shorts.

Try a more neutral approach to sweets instead

What often works best is a middle-of-the-road approach in which sensible sweets are kept around, like low-fat cookies, pudding cups or frozen yogurt. Since nothing is off-limits, it sort of takes the pressure off. The sweets are there if you want them, so you might actually think about them less. Sometimes when there’s nothing around, you end up craving sweets even more.

You could try serving the occasional dessert along with a meal, like my friend does. I think his heart is in the right place, and it seems to be working for his family. I’m just waiting for the day when he takes his kids to a restaurant and they order their salad, their spaghetti and their chocolate cake—and ask that they all be served at the same time.