10 Healthy Ideas for a Lean Barbecue Season

These grilling tips can help you have a healthier cookout.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Summer is synonymous with grilling for many American families, and why not? When the weather is warm, we spend more time outdoors and try to stay out of the hot kitchen. It stays light longer, and the evenings tend to seem a little less jam-packed with activities than usual. These are all great reasons to look to the barbecue for dinner inspiration. But before you dust off that grill, we have some tips to help you enjoy the BBQ season while keeping your dinners as lean and healthy as can be.

Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 1: Bold ingredients add great flavor to grilling sauces and marinades.
You can add bold flavors without adding too many calories or fat grams. Here are some of my favorite ingredients for sauces and marinades:

  • Worcestershire sauce: 2 tablespoons contain 30 calories, 0 grams fat and 390 mg sodium
  • Chili sauce: 2 tablespoons contain 40 calories, 0 grams fat and 960 mg sodium (depending on brand)
  • Tomato paste: 2 tablespoons contain 30 calories, 0 grams fat and 20 mg sodium
  • Molasses: 2 tablespoons contain 120 calories, 0 grams fat and 40 mg sodium
  • Soy sauce (less-sodium type): 2 tablespoons contain 20 calories, 0 grams fat and 1150 mg sodium

Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 2: Have large resealable plastic bag, will marinate!

One of the easiest ways to marinate meat, chicken, fish or vegetables is to place them inside a large, resealable plastic bag. Set the bag in a medium sized bowl, then drizzle the marinade over the food. Seal the bag, eliminating any excess air. The food should be surrounded by the marinade. Keep marinating in the refrigerator until you're ready to grill.

Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 3: A little sweetness is good, but more is not better.

Adding a small amount of a sweet ingredient (like fruit juice, brown sugar, honey or molasses) to the marinade or grilling sauce can be a good thing. It adds flavor and helps to balance other bold spices in the marinade or sauce. But too much sweetness can encourage the meat, fish or vegetables to burn when they're grilled over high heat.

Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 4: Throw some vegetables on the grill

The best part about grilling vegetables is that you don't have to worry about overcooking them as you do with some types of meat. And vegetables seem to taste better grilled than they do cooked any other way.

Marinating vegetables will help them caramelize better when they're grilled, and it's the caramelization that brings the best flavors. Just submerge the vegetables in marinade for about an hour before putting them on the grill. If you don't have that kind of prep time, just coat the vegetables ever so lightly with a little olive oil or canola oil.

The trick to grilling veggies is cutting them into shapes and sizes that cook well on the grill. When you cook them over direct medium heat, turning frequently, they'll usually be done in 8-10 minutes (sometimes less, depending on the vegetable). Look for grill marks and some light browning to develop.

These vegetables work especially well on the grill.

  • Red, white, or sweet onion, sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds.
  • Corn on the cob (take off the husks and silks).
  • Whole mushrooms. Grill portabellas like a burger or them cut into thick slices; grill small mushrooms strung on a skewer or kabob.
  • Eggplant, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices.
  • Zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices.
  • Asparagus spears. Just trim off the white end and grill the spears whole.

Healthy Barbecue Tip No. 5: When grilling chicken, take the skin off -- take it all off!

Half the fat and saturated fat in chicken breast and thigh is in the skin, which is why so many of us enjoy our chicken skinless. Consider:

  • 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast with skin contains 223 calories, 8.8 grams of fat and 2.5 grams of saturated fat
  • 4 ounces of roasted chicken breast WITHOUT skin contains 187 calories, 4 grams of fat and 1.2 grams of saturated fat

But if you cook your chicken with the skin on, then take it off at the dinner table, you'll lose all the flavor from your marinade, BBQ sauce, or rubs and seasonings. So go ahead and take the skin off before you prepare the chicken for grilling.

Marinate skinless chicken breasts and thighs for about 2 hours in the refrigerator. Let the marinade drain off, then cook chicken over direct high heat or direct medium heat until it's done throughout. Always check the thickest part of the chicken breast or thigh for doneness. You can cook chicken over indirect heat as well; it will just take longer to cook.