5 Easy Steps That Will Transform How You Grill This Summer

Our resident RD proves the possibilities are endless. This will definitely give you some new (healthy) ideas.

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Firing up the grill can be one of the simplest strategies for delicious, healthy summer eating - if you use the right ingredients and techniques. Here's my five-step strategy for creating a perfectly balanced meal (entirely on the grill if you'd like) that will leave you simultaneously satisfied, energized, and without the bloated feeling that comes from overdoing it on cheeseburgers and hot dogs. Get ready to ditch the fatty traditional fare and grill up some clean, healthy cuisine.

Step 1: Load up on veggies

Veggies should take up the largest chunk of the grill and your plate. Aim for about two cups pre-cooked, about the size of two tennis balls, and keep it simple while mixing up the variety. The possibilities are endless: Skewer baby Brussels sprouts, or make kabobs out of cut veggies, like bell peppers, onions, cherry tomatoes, and mushrooms. Slice zucchini and summer squash lengthwise, and place face down directly on the grill. Other options that are robust enough to grill directly include asparagus, Portobello mushrooms, and eggplant. You can even grill hearty greens, like Romaine lettuce and kale. And for a real treat wrap up some cauliflower florets in foil and cook until they're melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Any veggie you grill can be cooked plain, and jazzed up afterward (see step 3), or marinated in a simple mixture of balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, and Italian herb seasoning (for a little extra kick add Dijon mustard and freshly squeezed lemon juice). Or simply mist or lightly brush veggies with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper and sea salt, or a specialty salt (like fluer-de-sel, smoked sea salt, or pink Himalayan). You can also place grilled veggies over a bed of raw greens. I love the temperature and texture contrast, and when I do this with well-done cauliflower it falls apart and creates a creamy dressing that's out of this world good, especially with a little drizzled balsamic on top.

Step 2: Pick a lean protein

To keep your protein clean and lean stick with skinless chicken breast or seafood, like shrimp skewers, scallops, or salmon. Or, if you're really craving a burger, make your own healthy patties. Try a combo of 3 ounces of extra lean ground turkey or flaked salmon, along with 1 lightly beaten egg, 1/2 cup veggies (such as minced red onion, finely chopped spinach, or shredded zucchini) and season to taste, with garlic, and fresh basil, parsley, or dill. For a plant-based burger that really hits the spot, combine 1/2 cup of mashed chickpeas, black beans, or lentils with veggies and herbs, or wrap up beans in foil and cook them whole on the grill. Another idea for mixing things up: take it a step further with your seasonings. For a southwest-style burger use minced garlic and black or cayenne pepper with jalapeno, red onion, and cilantro. For a Moroccan-inspired burger use garlic along with spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, and black pepper.

Step 3: Select a plant-based fat

One of my favorite ways to mix up the flavor (and add a health boost) for any meal is to include a delectable plant-based fat, and there are plenty that pair perfectly when grilling. Top a grilled burger or chicken breast with a dollop of olive tapenade, guacamole, or slices or avocado. Drizzle a nut or seed butter over grilled veggies or shrimp, like spiced up tahini, or some thinned almond butter. For the latter, stir a little warmed-up low sodium organic veggie broth with plain almond butter in a small bowl until smooth, and add minced garlic, freshly grated ginger, turmeric, and crushed red pepper. Brush or dip veggies with pesto, like sun-dried tomato, roasted red pepper, or basil pesto. Or for an avocado-based sauce puree ripe Hass avocado with a few fresh basil leaves, along with a little apple cider vinegar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, garlic, and black pepper. For an option that satisfies a "crunch" tooth garnish grilled dishes with nuts or seeds, like sliced or slivered almonds, chopped pecans, walnuts or pistachios, or sunflower or pumpkin seeds.

Step 4: Choose your carbs wisely

With traditional cookouts, carbohydrates are probably the easiest thing to overdo, and a surplus will end up stored in your fat cells unless you bump up your activity level to burn them off. My rule for keeping them in check: choose one nutrient-rich option as an accompaniment to your meal, and make room for it. For example, wrap burgers in crisp lettuce or grilled Portobellos instead of a bun, and get your carb fix by grilling up organic corn on the cob. You can also grill in foil fingerling or cubed red potatoes, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, or beans. To satisfy a sweet craving, cook up some in-season fruit. Slice peaches, plums, or nectarines in half, remove the pits, and grill face down. Skewer cantaloupe cubes, or even pitted cherries, or place slices of pineapple or watermelon directly on the grill.

Step 5: Lighten up your liquids

Sugary beverages, including soda, lemonade, fruit punch, and sweet tea, and diet drinks alike, can wreak havoc on your waistline. If plain H2O just doesn't cut it, jazz up flat water, club soda, or seltzer with a few mashed berries, and infusions of fresh mint, basil, and freshly grated ginger, or sliced cucumber with lemon or lime. If you'll be enjoying a cocktail keep it light. Make white wine into a spritzer with sparkling water, reach for a light beer, or make fancy frozen drinks without sugary mixers.

To make what I call a "pia-a-slim-lada," blend rum with a small handful of frozen pineapple cubes, banana slices, unsweetened coconut milk, and a dash of ground cinnamon. And there you have it: your summer cookout, transformed!

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