The grill has earned a bad rap. To those who don’t know better, it’s an implement of waistline inflation, good for little more than churning out the kind of greasy meats that keep Pepto-Bismol in business.
But consider the simplicity of that humble cooking contraption: At its essence, the grill is little more than an open flame beneath a gridiron of iron or steel. If you choose to cook nothing more than brats and burgers—well, that’s your choice. But once you truly tap the grill’s potential, you’ll find it to be your biggest ally in fitness.
“With grilling, you don’t need much oil compared to sautéing and roasting,” says Michelle Dudash, RDN, author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. “That helps your food stay lower in calories.”
What’s more, the grill can turn ho-hum foods like asparagus and chicken breast into flavor-loaded indulgences. So—are you ready to tap the power of the flame? Here’s your new game plan for a full summer of nonstop grilling.
1. Think outside the bun
The grill isn’t just for burgers and dogs. It’s also the ideal way to add smoky flavor and a delightful crunch to vegetables such as squash, zucchini, bell peppers, and eggplant, says Kristina LaRue, a Florida-based sports dietitian and recipe developer. A good rule to grill by: Make sure half of the grill surface is dedicated to produce. Cut them lengthwise, coat them lightly with olive oil, and position directly on the grill grates.
2. Satisfy your sweet tooth
Slices of fruit that get the grill treatment make for intensely delicious desserts without the calorie penalty you’d encounter with traditional sweets. Try it with peaches, pineapples, mango, melon, or bananas. Don’t be afraid to experiment. “The grill concentrates the natural sugars in the fruit, and it’s like candy,” Dudash says. With most fruits, cut them so that you have a flat side to place on the grates. Brush it with bit of oil so that it doesn’t stick, and—if you’d like—finish it off with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Need more inspiration? Try LaRue’s suggestion: Grill half-inch cubes of watermelon, and mix them with a few scoops of Greek yogurt, fresh mint, and drizzle of honey. Then top with granola and serve.
3. Master the plank
Fish can be tricky on a grill, but you can simplify the cooking process by investing in a few inexpensive cedar planks. Not only do the slabs of wood infuse your salmon and tilapia filets with more smoky flavor, but they also prevent the fish from sticking to the grates. To get started, soak the planks in water for at least 30 minutes (but several hours or overnight if you’re planning ahead). After you remove them from the water, place one filet on each plank, and put them on the grill for 8 to 15 minutes (the internal temperature should be at least 125°F). Then remove the planks from the grill. You can eat your dinner right off the plank.
4. Make a killer marinade
One reason for grilling’s bad reputation is that charred meat has been linked to cancer-causing toxins called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). But studies show that marinating meat helps reduce the presence of HCAs—plus it tenderizes lean protein and amps up the flavor. Dudash recommends a simple marinade that combines fresh herbs (rosemary in particular has been shown to cut down on HCAs) with a sweet, acidic base-like red wine vinegar (for steak or pork) or apple cider vinegar (for chicken). Put the marinade and the meat in a Ziploc bag, pressing out the excess air. “That’s a way to make sure all the meat comes into contact with the marinade,” Dudash says. The bigger the piece of meat, the longer you want to let it sit (ideally overnight or all day), but even marinating for an hour is better than nothing.
5. Pound your chicken
The reason your chicken breasts come out dry? Because some parts are way too thick. By the time they cook through, the thinner parts of the breast are tough and rubbery. “If your chicken is uneven, some of it’s going to be underdone and some will be overdone—unless you just overcook the whole thing,” Dudash says. So use a meat mallet to flatten out the thick parts. Place the chicken on a cutting board under a piece of plastic wrap, and pound it until it has an even thickness. Follow that up with a marinade, and you’ll end up what Dudash promises will be “the juiciest chicken ever.”
6. Get your fry fix
Surprise! Grilling potatoes is healthier than frying them. And if you do it right, it tastes even better. Cut your potatoes into fry-shaped slices and soak them in water for a few hours or overnight to prevent browning, Dudash says. Then drain and dry them thoroughly. (Frozen fries can work, too. Dudash likes those from the brand Alexia). Toss the fries in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then place them in a grill basket or directly on the grill grates. Flip when one side is golden brown, and once they’re finished, sprinkle with smoked paprika.
7. Pack the flavor in foil
Some people call them hobo packets, others call them foil packs. Whatever the name, “they’re my go-to strategy for more flavor,” LaRue says. The idea is simple: You load one meal’s worth of protein and vegetables onto a big sheet of foil, and then fold the edges up, crimping them together to form a sealed foil bag. Then you toss them onto the grill and let everything steam in its own juice. For a Cajun-style foil pack, try mixing corn, shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and any Cajun seasoning you’d like.
8. Butter your corn with avocado
Dudash has a trick for swapping out butter for healthier fats. Start by removing the husk to get at the silk (those are the little corn hairs). Then rewrap the cob in its husk, and place it on the grill until the kernels are tender, about 15 minutes (turning every 5). Then, remove the corn from the grill, ditch the husk, and—using a knife—spread on thin slices of avocado. “It almost melts on the corn, and then you can sprinkle it with chili powder,” Dudash says. Try it. You won’t even miss the butter.
Want to master the grill? Download our Summer Grilling Guide.