Health on the Grill

Planning many cookouts this summer? Get out of the dogs-and-burgers
rut and into a flavorful, veggie-centered groove.

July/August 2011

By Corinne Garcia & Lisa James

Next to shaking sand out of beach towels, nothing says “summer” like a backyard cookout, where the sounds of children playing in the pool mingle with those of food sizzling on the grill. But hamburgers and hot dogs, traditional barbecue fare though they may be, aren’t on anyone’s top-10 healthy foods list—especially when the only vegetables in sight are potato salad, sauerkraut and pickle relish.

Does this mean you have to give up your “kiss the cook” apron and lucky tongs? Heavens, no. “The good news is that vegetarian grilling is simpler than cooking meat on the grill,” says Jolinda Hackett, who writes for and is the author of Cookouts Veggie Style (Adams Media). But first, let’s look at your outdoor cooking options.

How to Cook

Outdoor cooking comes in many forms, whether it’s the backyard grill or the backwoods campfire. If done right, they all result in delicious summertime eating.

Three of every four US families own a grill according to an industry survey, making it the most common outdoor cooking method. “Grilling sears the food’s surface, giving you a wonderful combination of crispy exterior and moist interior,” says Cheryl Alters Jamison, James Beard Award winner and author (with Bill Jamison) of Born To Grill (Harvard Common). Grilling also allows fat to drip off.

Barbecue Tofu Salad

To add some extra crunch, Jolinda Hackett suggests crumbling a handful of tortilla chips on top just before serving.

16 oz firm or extra-firm tofu, well pressed and sliced
3/4” thick
1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup barbecue sauce, divided
15 oz canned corn kernels,drained or from 2 ears
fresh grilled corn
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 avocado, diced (optional)
1 large head romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
3 tbsp vegan mayonnaise
1-2 tbsp water (as needed)

1. Marinate tofu in 1/3 cup barbecue sauce for 10-15 minutes. Then grill for a few minutes on each side, basting occasionally with more sauce.

2. In a large serving bowl, combine corn kernels, bell pepper, avocado, lettuce and cilantro.

3. Chop tofu into cubes and add to bowl.

4. In a small bowl, whisk mayonnaise together with 1/4 cup barbecue sauce, adding water as needed to get the desired consistency. Toss gently with the salad to combine.

Serves 4. Analysis per serving: 274 calories, 13g protein, 8g fat (1g saturated), 6g fiber, 41g carbohydrate, 522 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from Cookouts Veggie Style by Jolinda Hackett (Adams Media,

Jamison says a simple “hand test” can help determine a food’s ideal cooking temperature. Hold your hand an inch over the grill; how many seconds can you keep it there? One second is high heat (steaks and seafood), two to three means medium high (pork tenderloin), three to four is medium (pork chops and chicken), and four to five is medium-low (vegetables and fruits).

After cooking, Jamison suggests going over the grill with a damp scrub brush while it’s still hot for easy clean-up.

Grilling does have its downside, however. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Report on Carcinogens, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed during the cooking of “muscle-derived foods,” especially in well-done meats. But the report also states that there is inadequate evidence to evaluate the carcinogenic effects of HCAs in humans. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are other substances found in grilled foods that have been linked to cancer.

The American Cancer Society says you can operate a healthy grill by limiting PAH and HCA consumption. Techniques include trimming fat or sticking with lean cuts, using marinades, partially precooking in the microwave or on the stovetop, cooking at lower temperatures, flipping meats regularly and not charring foods. “We’ve always felt like it was a minimal concern,” Jamison says, explaining that most people are not grilling every day. Grilling planks made of such aromatic woods as untreated cedar, alder, hickory or maple can add a subtle flavor while preventing harmful compounds from reaching the food (soak the plank in cold water for an hour beforehand). Another way to reduce the hazards of grilling is to load up on vegetables and other produce-based foods (more on that topic later).

Smoking is a slow, flavorful way to cook outdoors. An electric or gas hot smoker cooks foods at 180° to 250°, with wood chips added to create flavor. “Traditional smoking condenses a lot of fat and moisture and is a great way to cook brisket, pork shoulder, anything that holds up well to long cooking times,” Jamison says. She recommends smoking with fruitwoods from your own neighborhood or hard woods, such as hickory, oak or mesquite.

As with grilling, PAHs can develop when foods are smoked. A report in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture (9/04) states that PAHs “were at high levels in both cold- and hot-smoked samples.” As in the case of grilling, cumulative exposure plays a role; Jamison says smoked foods tend to be a treat rather than a regular part of one’s diet.

Smoking generally uses lower temperatures than grilling, which makes it less convenient. Chef Tyler Hill, owner of John Bozeman’s Bistro in Bozeman, Montana, recommends adding wood chips right to your grill instead.

“Take a piece of oak, soak it in water, put it in a tin can on the grill, close the grill lid and it will start smoking, adding that flavor quickly,” he says. You can also use carbonized coconut shells and other unusual heat sources.

A great campfire cooking method, Dutch oven meals can spice up a camping trip or backyard feast. After a fire has died down, a cast iron cooker with legs sits on top of the coals. More coals are placed on the lid, which has a lip to hold them. “It’s essentially an outdoor slow cooker, but with heat from all sides and it transfers heat nicely because of the cast iron,” says Hill.

Eating Safely Outdoors

• Wash your hands before preparing food and after handling raw meat; if you don’t have access to a sink use hand sanitizer

• Keep raw meat and seafood away
from other raw items and cooked
foods (separate coolers, cutting boards, knives, platters, etc.)

• Keep an eye on such perishables as
mayonnaise-based salads; discard after
an hour if air temperatures reach 90°, after two hours in cooler temperatures

• Don’t use marinades for meat or seafoods as basting liquid; instead set some marinade aside ahead of time for basting purposes

• Use a meat thermometer to check internal temperatures and clean it between readings; foods are fully cooked at 160° for ground meat, 165° for poultry and 145° for whole cuts of meat (and let rest for 3 minutes)

• Promptly cool and refrigerate leftovers in shallow containers

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Because you’re using coals, finding the perfect temperature for a Dutch oven can be tricky. “It’s a little more critical if baking bread because you want even heat,” Hill says. He recommends that Dutch oven novices start with forgiving healthy stews instead. “Brown the meat, get it simmering with the right heat, and go for a hike. When you come back a few hours later, the fire will probably be out, but the stew is done.”

Dutch oven cooking may lack convenience, but the fun factor can make this a great method for a special occasion. “It’s more effort than I’m going to go through except for a special occasion,” says Jamison. Dutch ovens do have one advantage, though: Because the oven is a barrier between the flame and the food, there are no concerns about HCA or PAH.

What to Cook

Meat isn’t unwelcome at a healthy cookout, especially if you buy smaller portions of organic meat. “When we have a cookout we often do a small amount of meat and a lot of veggie burger types of things,” says registered dietitian Kath Younger of Charlot­tesville, Virginia, author of the blog Kath Eats Real Food ( Bean burgers are one reliable burger substitute. Younger says, “You don’t have to worry about the temperature in the middle—the beans are already cooked.”

Hackett is another veggie burger fan. “Homemade veggie burgers are healthy, full of fiber and inexpensive to make at home, and nearly all store-bought brands taste fantastic on the grill,” she says. As for other cookout fare, “I personally prefer the thick vegetarian sausages to veggie hot dogs. Vegetarian chicken is chewy and satisfying, and because it’s lighter in color, it picks up the most inviting grill marks.”

Many of these so-called “mock meats” are made of soy, which can also be grilled in more traditional forms such as tofu and tempeh. Younger says, “I would look for something that already has a little flavor already in it,” such as embedded herbs and spices.

Fish is another good grill option. “I particularly love shrimp for skewers—easy to put on and easy to flip,” says Younger. Fillets and small whole fish are easier to handle if you put them in a fish basket.
Healthy cookouts should include generous amounts of vegetables. Large, meat-like portabella mushroom caps have long been a grill favorite, but Hackett suggests challenging yourself to try something new. “Ever tried grilling fresh baby corn? How about romaine hearts or jerusalem artichokes? Nearly all vegetables can turn into a gourmet side when placed on the grill with little more than a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of sea salt and fresh ground pepper,” she says.

A growing chorus of health experts agree that the more colorful the veggie, the better it is for you, such as dark green zucchini and purple eggplant. They are among Younger’s favorites “because they’re the easiest to cut into a nice slab for the grill”; she’s even grilled radicchio with aged balsamic vinegar. “You can’t go wrong with skewers using cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and bell peppers,” Younger adds. Asparagus, carrots and onions also take well to the great outdoors.

Expand your ideas of what can be cooked over fire. “Have you ever thought about grilling cheese?” asks Hackett. “Halloumi is a firm Greek cheese meant for grilling that gets crisp on the outside and deliciously melty on the inside. Indian paneer is satisfying on the grill when topped with a curry sauce or paired with veggies.” Younger suggests fruit as a change of pace, especially stone fruits such as peaches and apricots. “Add a little bit of moisture, such as a light coating of canola oil or balsamic vinegar.”

Adding moisture in the form of marinade also helps develop flavor, an especially important aspect of meatless (or less-meat) grilling. Instead of using standard barbecue sauce, Hackett recommends going with gourmet varieties such as mango ginger or smoked chipotle, or using Indian curry sauce, Chinese hoisin sauce or Japanese teriyaki. “You can use infused oils, such as chili oil or roasted garlic infused oil—it adds so much flavor,” adds Younger.

Fresh herbs can open up new worlds of flavor on the grill. Hackett suggests soaking them in water for a few minutes, then placing directly on the coals. “Rosemary, sage, or thyme smell fantastic and will lend a gentle layer of flavor to any savory grilled food,” she says.

Whether you grill, smoke or use a Dutch oven, there are plenty of ways to enjoy a summer’s worth of tasty, healthy outdoor eating. As Hackett puts it, “Plain burgers? Boring!


Chicken Salad Cabbage Cups

Kath Younger says, “I’m not a huge fan of chicken
salad in general—too much mayo!—but this
version is refreshingly good.”

4 cabbage leaves
1/2 grilled chicken breast, cubed (leftovers are fine)
1 large apple, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/3 cup blackberries
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
1/4 cup Greek-style yogurt*
2 tsp dijon mustard
sprinkle marjoram
sprinkle celery salt
pepper, to taste

1. Steam cabbage leaves until pliable. Allow to cool.

2. Toss remaining ingredients to combine.

3. Use two cabbage leaves to form a small cup; repeat with the other two leaves.
Divide the chicken salad between the two cups.

*Yogurt that has been strained to remove extra whey;
has a thicker, creamier texture than regular yogurt

Serves 2. Analysis per serving: 288 calories,
27g protein, 26.5g carbohydrates,
9g fat (3g saturated), 6g fiber, 437 mg sodium;
analysis based on 2% yogurt

Reprinted with permission from Kath Eats Real Food


Eggplant Pizza Rounds

Who needs crust? These grilled rounds combine the goodness
of veggies with the delicious taste of pizza.

1 large eggplant, sliced 3/4”-1” thick
oil for brushing (about 2 tbsp)
1 tsp garlic salt
1/2-2/3 cup pizza sauce
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

Optional Toppings:
pineapple, sliced olives, vegetarian “pepperoni”

1. Approximately 30 minutes before you begin grilling, prepare the eggplant as follows:
Place an eggplant slice on a paper towel and salt it liberally. Put another paper towel
over it and top with another slice of eggplant; salt. Repeat this process until all of the
slices have been salted and stacked between paper towels. Let sit until ready to grill,
then remove slices from toweling and wipe off. (This removes some of the bitterness
and moisture from the eggplant.)

2. Brush the slices with oil on both sides and
sprinkle with garlic salt. Grill for 3-4 minutes, until tender but not too soft.

3. Carefully spread a thin layer of sauce on each slice, then sprinkle with Italian seasoning
and cheese. Add optional toppings, if using.

4. Return slices to the grill and heat for another 2-3 minutes, until cheese melts.

Serves 4. Analysis per serving: 152 calories, 5g protein, 11g fat (3g saturated), 5g fiber, 11g carbohydrate, 730 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from Cookouts Veggie Style by Jolinda Hackett (Adams Media,


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