Get Grilling: Pro Tips for the BBQ

marinating on the grill

Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RD, LDN

When the warm weather settles in, no one wants to slave over a hot stove. Fire up the barbecue and enjoy the season!

Safety First

Before you send out the invitations to your barbecue, Toby Smithson, RDN, CDE, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, says to invest in at least two sets of tools such as tongs, spatulas and large platters. "The purpose," she says, "is to prevent mixing utensils used for raw meats with cooked meats."

You'll also need one more tool: a food thermometer. "It's the only reliable way to ensure meat is safe and ready to eat," says former Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Debbi Beauvais, RDN, SNS. "Checking the color of meat or juices does not work."

Whichever type of meat you grill, make sure to check that it's cooked to the proper temperature before it's served.

Start the Fire

The next step is to decide whether to use a propane tank grill or a charcoal grill. Some backyard chefs prefer charcoal because it adds a flavor profile to barbecued food. Partisans of gas grills claim other benefits. "Gas grills cook at a lower temperature than charcoal," Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Ximena Jimenez, MS, RDN, LD, says. "And it's easier to control the temperature."

What to Grill

Grilling has one big health upside over other forms of cooking: "It doesn't add fat," Smithson says.

She recommends avoiding fatty meats on the grill because their drippings can cause flare-ups, which can burn the outside before the food reaches the proper temperature. Instead, choose healthier items such as lean cuts of beef (tenderloin, flank steak, ground round), pork, chicken or fish. Smithson says thick fish filets including salmon, tuna or grouper can be grilled directly on the grill surface, while thinner, flakier fish — such as tilapia or whitefish — should be cooked in a grilling pan or on foil.

Or, skip the animal protein altogether. "Grill tofu or veggie burgers," Beauvais suggests. Some veggies will get a tremendous flavor boost from a few minutes on the grill. Beauvais says the best vegetables for grilling are: onions, cabbage, mushrooms, bell peppers and asparagus. "Corn is another great vegetable for grilling," Smithson says. "Sprinkle herbs and spices on each cob of corn and wrap in foil before placing on the grill. You can use fresh rosemary as a seasoning and you won't need any butter or margarine."

Direct vs. Indirect Heat

"If you've ever grilled food that was charred on the outside and undercooked inside, chances are the wrong grilling method was used," Beauvais says.

Direct heat has a straightforward definition: It means putting raw food directly over the heat source to cook. It should be used for barbecue staples including steaks, burgers, kabobs, chicken, sausages and vegetables.

Indirect heat is when food is placed away from the heat source and the grill cover is closed to allow for the radiant heat to cook the item evenly. "This is similar to roasting, but with the added benefit of that grilled texture, flavor and appearance you can't get from the oven," states Beauvais. Indirect heat works best for foods that need extra cooking time. You can also start a food such as a thick steak on direct heat to create a sear, then move it to indirect heat to cook to the proper internal temperature.

Should Meats Be Charred?

Some studies suggest there may be a cancer risk related to eating food cooked by high-heat cooking techniques such as grilling, frying and broiling. High-heat grilling of meat may create two potentially carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). PAHs come from the smoke, while HCAs are from blackened bits of charred meat.

Based on present research findings, eating moderate amounts of grilled meats including fish, meat and poultry cooked — without charring — to a safe temperature does not pose a problem.

To prevent charring, remove visible fat that can cause a flare-up. Precook meat in the microwave immediately before placing it on the grill to release some of the juices that can drop on coals.

Let It Marinate

Another option is to marinate meats before cooking. Marinating has other great benefits too: "Marinades add flavor to the foods you are going to grill," Beauvais says. "And also keep it from drying out."

Smithson says the basic building blocks of a marinade include herbs, spices and acid; and many also include oils such as grapeseed, virgin olive or sunflower that can be heated to a high temperature without smoking. Beauvais says some marinades add sweet ingredients to promote caramelization. When creating a marinade, Jimenez says to consider using herbs such as turmeric and rosemary, which have been shown to reduce the formation of HCAs.

Basic All-Purpose Marinade Recipe

By Debbi Beauvais, RDN, SNS

I like using a light Italian dressing as my marinade base and, depending on what food I am working with, adding one or a combination of the following to the dressing: citrus juice, soy sauce, teriyaki, Dijon mustard or honey.


¼ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1½ teaspoons garlic powder
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper


  1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients.
  2. Place desired meat in marinade, and let sit in refrigerator at least 4 hours before grilling.
  3. Discard marinade if used for raw meat and poultry.

Nutrition Information

Serving size: 1 tablespoon

Calories: 86; Total fat 8g; Saturated fat: 1.25g; Sodium 206mg; Cholesterol: 3.4g

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