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Ready, Set, Grill: Healthy BBQ Ideas from Nutrition Pros

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 6/29/2015 Julie Upton
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Eight in 10 Americans will be hosting or going to a BBQ this Fourth of July holiday, making it the most popular grilling day of the year. While grilling is considered one of the healthiest and tastiest ways to cook, a typical cookout menu of burgers, brats and dogs, and creamy sides can pack in more than 2,000 calories and two days' worth of harmful saturated fat.

Here's what's grillin' when dietitians take control of the menu.

Smokin' Veggie Starters

Instead of munching on high-calorie fried chips and dips, my menu is more Mediterranean-inspired, so you'll see produce infused into all courses as well as healthy fats. For my appetizers, I assemble a tray of mixed baby veggies with healthy dips such as hummus and the walnut- and red pepper-based muhammara. I'll also have pita chips and whole-grain crackers with herbed goat cheese spread.

Slimmed-Down Sides

Traditional cookout sides – coleslaw and creamy potato salad – can pack in more than 350 calories per cup, so go with a lighter, veggie-rich Mediterranean-style pasta salad. While cooked pasta has a low glycemic index because it's a complex carb, when the starch is heated then cooled, the glycemic index drops even lower, which keeps your blood sugar levels stable and increases satisfaction. 

"I always make pasta salads with a variety of veggies, with lots of in-season favorites – to up the color and antioxidants. I cut the veggies into bite-sized pieces so my guests know what they're eating but don't have to work too hard eating it," says registered dietitian Sherri Stastny, an associate professor of health, nutrition and exercise sciences at North Dakota State University. Here are two recipes to try.

I also have plenty of mixed grilled veggies to go with the main courses, including grilled mushrooms, onions, summer squash, asparagus and bell peppers. Just toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh-squeezed lemon and herbs before grilling.

Marinate Like a Pro

"Whether I'm grilling beef, poultry, fish or veggies, a tasty marinade is a must," says registered dietitian Katherine Brooking, author of The Real Skinny." Marinades amp up flavor, act as a tenderizer and help reduce the formation of harmful, cancer-promoting compounds called heterocyclic amines by as much as 88 percent, according to one study. "My favorite no-fuss recipe combines balsamic vinegar, fresh lemon juice, oil, salt, pepper and other seasonings like ginger, thyme, rosemary or oregano. I prefer canola oil as my base because its light texture and neutral flavor mixes perfectly with the other ingredients."

Build a Better Burger (…or Dog)

A typical cheeseburger can pack in 500 calories or more, while a hot dog or brat with all the fixings has more than 400 calories. Biting into a turkey breast burger in place of ground beef will trim more than 100 calories and 5.5 grams of sat fat from your burger. (Hint: Add a couple teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce per pound of ground turkey with salt and pepper to amp up the flavor of your patties.) If serving dogs, slash sat fat by opting for chicken or turkey-based choices.

Fish With a Tropical Twist

I also like to grill fish when I'm hosting a BBQ. For a tropical twist, I grill a white fish such as sea bass or tilapia and serve it with this fresh mango salsa recipe that calls for both mangos and papayas. Mangos are at their best in the summer and are rich in both vitamin C and beta-carotene.

Decadent Guilt-Free Desserts

For something sweet, in-season fruit is the perfect choice. I use whatever is in-season, and summer is full of fresh picks so there's really no excuse for not serving fruit-based treats. Summer stone fruit is great when grilled. "My favorite is grilled peaches, which is popular with my kids and guests," says Phoenix-based dietitian Maureen Zimmerman. The heat of the grill will bring out their natural sweetness, so no added sugars are used in these grilled peach recipes.

For a red, white and blue option, try a Berry Trifle made with strawberries and blueberries, Greek yogurt and angel food cake. It looks festive and decadent – but isn't!

Sip Smarter

If you want to be bathing suit-ready all summer, one of the best tips we have is to cut back on liquid calories, as studies show it's one of the easiest ways to lose pounds. Skip sodas and other sweet beverages, and opt for sparkling water (or plain tap) or unsweetened iced tea instead. Alcohol can be a triple-threat to your waistline. Alcoholic beverages are often high in calories (a single margarita can pack in more than 300 calories!) and alcohol stimulates your appetite while chipping away at your resolve to eat healthier. If you're going to drink, opt for ultra-light beer or distilled spirits with plenty of soda water, seltzer or other calorie-free mixers.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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