Take the focus off meat. Try grilling mushrooms, carrots, peppers, squash and more on a kabob skewer. Brush with oil to keep the vegetables from drying out. And don’t neglect grilled corn. Cooking corn actually boosts levels of antioxidants and other healthful phytochemicals; this also happens when corn is heat-processed before canning. The same is true of carrots and tomatoes: processing and cooking make the carotenoids in them, notably beta carotene and lycopene, more readily available.
Cooked over high heat, fat drips onto the heating element, forming potentially cancer-causing chemicals that are deposited on the meat by the rising smoke. This also occurs to some extent when meat, poultry or fish is broiled or pan-fried, especially if it’s cooked until well done. To reduce the risks from grilled meats, pick low-fat cuts and trim all visible fat. Wrap meat in foil to protect it from the smoke. Don’t place the meat directly over the heat source (push the coals to the sides of the grill once they are hot). Place aluminum foil or a metal pan between the meat and the coals to catch the dripping fat. And scrape off charred parts from the cooked meat.
If you’re grilling meat, chicken or fish, marinate it first in the refrigerator—and not just for good taste. One study showed that a chicken breast marinated in olive oil, cider vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, garlic, mustard and salt produced fewer potentially cancer-causing heterocyclic amines than unmarinated chicken when grilled for 30 minutes. Marinating reduced some of the risky substances by 99 percent. If you want to consume the marinade the meat sat in, be sure to boil it for at least one minute before serving it as a sauce.
They are more perishable—and also more likely to cause food poisoning—than other meats. Once ground, the meat has a larger surface area than whole cuts, making it an easier target for bacteria. When cooking burgers, don’t judge doneness by the color inside. Burgers that look brown in the center may not be cooked through and thus may be unsafe to eat. Cook burgers to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) according to a meat thermometer.
Between rounds at the grill, wash all equipment that comes in contact with food—especially raw meats—including the utensils and cutting board. And don’t let cooked or refrigerated foods sit around. In hot weather (above 90°F) foods should never sit out for more than one hour before going in the refrigerator. Before you eat, reheat foods (such as hot dogs and burgers) to at least 160° F (71° C) to be sure that any harmful microorganisms are destroyed.
One study found that people who ate three cups of low-fat salad before lunch ended up eating 12 percent fewer calories at the entire meal than those skipping the salad. The key is to avoid high-fat dressings and cheese. More good news: a three-cup salad will provide three of the five to nine servings of produce you should eat daily. For more nutrients, select dark salad greens: Romaine lettuce, spinach, watercress, arugula and chicory; skip the iceberg lettuce.
For coleslaw, skip the mayonnaise in favor of a dressing made of 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt, 3 tablespoons apple juice and 2 tablespoons vinegar. That’s enough for 1 1/2 pounds of shredded red cabbage with 2 cups of shredded carrots, 2 shredded celery stalks, 1/3 cup raisins and 1 diced apple. Each one-cup serving has just 74 calories and almost no fat.
Try pita (or pocket) bread, which has only 70 to 80 calories per ounce and almost no fat. Whole-wheat pita, like whole-wheat bread, is more nutritious than that made from refined wheat. Pita’s main advantage is its small serving size: a typical 7-inch pita weighs only 2 ounces and has only 150 calories, versus 4 ounces or more and at least 300 calories in the average long sandwich roll or bagel.
Check the label on anything called “drink,” “beverage,” “punch,” “juice blend,” “-ade” or “juice cocktail.” It is likely to contain little fruit juice—but a lot of water and sugar (generally corn syrup). Thus your “tropical punch” may contain only 10 percent juice, or your “cranberry juice cocktail” just 25 percent juice. Manufacturers must disclose the type and percentage of juices in a fruit beverage on the labels. Don’t assume that “natural” sodas containing fruit juice are lower in calories than regular sodas either. Stick with plain or flavored seltzers, or mix them with juice.
Don’t assume that a wine cooler is “light.” A 12-ounce bottle may contain more alcohol than a 12-ounce can of beer. It also contains 150 to 300 calories. If you like wine but want to avoid the alcohol, try nonalcoholic wines, which contain less than 0.5% alcohol. Removing the alcohol eliminates many “empty” calories, too. Don’t assume that light beers are “light” in alcohol either: most brands contain nearly as much alcohol as regular beer. The “light” in beer refers to calories, which must be reduced at least 25 percent. To avoid alcohol, try nonalcoholic beers.
For a truly healthy dessert, grill fruits such as peaches, pineapple or mangoes. Most frozen fruit-juice pops, sorbets and ices are only very distantly related to fresh fruits or their juices. They’re more like frozen sweetened water. They contain little of the fruit’s vitamins (unless they are vitamin-fortified), but also little or no fat. For a more nutritious cold dessert, freeze your own juice in an ice-pop mold or ice-cube tray, puree frozen fruit or freeze canned fruit and then purée it. If you decide to have frozen yogurt, make sure it’s made from low-fat or nonfat milk.
When it comes time to store the leftovers, place the container in a deep pan of cold water (ice cubes will speed things up) instead of putting a large pot of hot food directly in the refrigerator or leaving it out to cool off. Water is effective at removing heat. Once the food has cooled substantially, it can be refrigerated. One advantage of this method is that the hot food won’t raise the temperature of the refrigerator.