A grill holds fresh fruits and vegetables. The vegetables look sauteed.
A surefire route to healthy grilling: Toss some fresh fruits and vegetables on the grill and drizzle on some olive oil. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Tired of the same old barbecue? Looking for healthier options that transcend those humdrum hot dogs and banal burgers?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a vegetarian or a meat-lover, or even something in between—there are plenty of ways to add variety and flavor to your summer grilling plans.

And the best part is, you can keep it healthy along the way.

Healthier hot dog

At a ball game or barbecue, hot dogs just seem to call your name. And they appear so innocent because they’re so small and simple.

But don’t be fooled. Done wrong, a single hot dog can pack on the calories.

If you get a dog with all the fixings—cheese, chili, ketchup, mustard, mayo and baked beans—and you add coleslaw, macaroni salad or potato salad as a side, you’re looking at anywhere from 750 to 2,000 calories. Not to mention all the fat.

But you don’t need to avoid hot dogs altogether. You just need to choose wisely.

Look for a hot dog that has less fat than its original version.

For example: A Hebrew National standard beef frank has about 150 calories and 13 grams of fat, but the “97 percent fat-free” version has 45 calories and 1 gram of fat. The better-for-you version has 105 fewer calories and 12 grams less fat.

It’s simple math.

You can also get turkey, chicken or veggie franks as a healthier option to make at home. Enjoy a whole wheat bun for added fiber.

Likewise, if you trade in your pork brat for a turkey brat, you’ll cut your calories in half and drastically lower your fat intake. A pork sausage has anywhere from 290 to 455 calories and 23 to 38 grams of fat per link. A turkey or chicken sausage, on the other hand, has about 140 to 180 calories and 7 to 12 grams of fat.

If you’re vegetarian, opt for veggie sausages made of soy, bean or tofu protein. Just about every grocery store offers delicious gourmet chicken sausages that are additive-free and they have great flavors such as sun-dried tomato, gouda and apple, and spinach feta. (For the sake of comparison, the typical chicken sausage has about 180 calories and 12 grams of fat.)

As a side, meanwhile, fill up on grilled veggies and veggie-and-bean salsas (sometimes called cowboy caviar). Or choose fruit salad instead of pasta and macaroni salad.

It’s truly all about making healthy substitutions that suit your taste.

Meat mythology

Somewhere along the way, you’ve probably heard that ground turkey is a healthier option than ground beef, particularly if you’re looking for fewer calories and less saturated fat.

But that’s not always the case.

Turkey breast is lean, but dark turkey meat is not. And some ground turkey contains both.

A quarter-pound of regular ground turkey contains 3 grams of saturated fat, but the same amount of extra-lean ground turkey has just 0.5 grams of fat. The right cut of turkey offers a sizable difference.

A few tips for ground beef:

  • With ground sirloin, always opt for the 90/10 ratio over the 80/20 or 85/15. Just 4 ounces of 90/10 contains 190 calories and 11 grams of fat.
  • Beware of 80/20 ground chuck. About 4 ounces has 280 calories and 20 grams of fat.

For juicy, grilled burgers that are good for you, don’t just look to beef to satisfy you.

Try veggie burgers with guacamole topping for good fats, or try grilled salmon patties. These are easy to find in your local grocery store. You can also try ground lamb with spinach and feta if you’re looking for a Greek twist.

Marinate your protein


Irene’s marinade

A pan with steak is seasoned with herbs, spices, and oils.

You can experiment with endless flavors of balsamic vinegar to get just the right mix of deliciously healthy marinade for your meat.

Start by marinating a flank steak with three minced garlic cloves, or you can also save time by using the garlic paste that’s sold in jars at the grocery store. For some added health boost, add your favorite herbs and spices.

Add 1/2 cup of your favorite balsamic vinegar—and experiment with some of the flavored balsamic, such as espresso balsamic. This adds a depth of flavor and smokiness.

To complete, add 1/2 cup soy sauce and 1/4 cup Worcestershire, then marinate for at least one hour. (It’s recommended you let it marinate overnight.) When ready, grill the meat for about four minutes per side, then let it rest five to 10 minutes. Serve it sliced across the grain.

Kansas State University researchers found that using herbs and spices in marinades can reduce carcinogenic compounds in grilled meats by up to 88%.

Other research has found that oils, vinegar and even beer can cut down on carcinogens in meat. The marinade could create a protective barrier between the meat proteins and the heat of the grill, or the antioxidants in the marinade may combat the carcinogens.

If you want to reduce charring, use a George Foreman Grill. It works beautifully for salmon, flank steak, burgers (veggie and meat) and pork tenderloin. Smaller, 1-pound tenderloins are great, and flank steak is an excellent lean meat for grilling.  

Go beyond the bun

You don’t have to rely on mainstays like burgers and hot dogs for your outdoor cooking. A few quick examples of some creative alternatives:

  • Pizza. Grill a pizza and make it caprese by topping it with fresh-sliced mozzarella, tomato slices, basil and a drizzle of garlic olive oil and fig balsamic.
  • Fajitas. Grill your chicken strips, onions and peppers and top it with fresh salsa and guacamole in a corn tortilla.
  • Portobello. You can make a vegetarian burger by grilling portobellos, red peppers, goat cheese and basil pesto.
  • Tacos. Grill up fish tacos and add your favorite slaw, or try a Korean taco made with flank steak and guacamole. There are so many great recipes for this on the internet.
  • Veggies. Toss them with olive oil, and use sturdy ones that won’t fall through the grill. Asparagus, sweet potatoes, onions, multicolored peppers, zucchini and eggplant are all great options. They can take just five to 10 minutes depending on the heat. Toss with pesto or garlic for added flavor.

Grill your dessert

With all these healthy grill options, you’ll of course need to leave a little room for a fun dessert.

Grill a slice of pound cake and serve it with grilled pineapple with chipotle olive oil and Persian lime olive oil, or grilled peaches with a little olive oil and a cinnamon pear balsamic and your favorite gelato.

These tips are bound to brighten up your grilling this summer. They’ll also keep you healthy while you still get to enjoy great-tasting food.