Fired Up About Summer Grilling!

Veggie kabobs on the grill

Summer and cookouts go together like ketchup and mustard. But for some, the seasonal pleasure is tempered by concerns about carcinogens. Luckily, there are tricks to minimize your risk.

First, some background: Fat is present in many of our foods; some fats are even essential to good health. But when fat drips onto the coals or burner of your grill, it creates intense heat and smoke. Flames leap up toward the food, which can cause charring. That char, as delicious as it can be, contains compounds that are known to increase one’s risk of cancer.

So we asked Anne Mcilhenny, Liz Cassini and Amanda Gibbs, dietitians at UVM Health Network – Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, New York, to offer advice and healthy grill recipes. Here are their five grilled dinner ideas.

Turn Down the Heat

Cranking up the dial on the heat causes a higher and hotter flame, which cooks food faster. Charring occurs when the surface of the food begins to blacken or become discolored. To avoid burning your food and increasing carcinogens, turn down the heat, keep it low and steady, and grill smaller cuts of meat and vegetables.

Kebabs are a great choice to cook bite-sized chunks of food quickly along a skewer. Consider keeping meat to one set of skewers, and vegetables to another. Vegetables often cook faster than meat, and using different skewers allows you to remove the vegetables from the heat as the meat continues cooking.

Use Rubs and Marinades

Spice rubs and marinades help food remain tender and flavorful when cooked at lower heat. As you prepare your rub, coat your meat lightly with oil to help the spices stick while minimizing added fat.

With just a little planning, marinating meat prior to cooking also helps keep food safe and tasty. The additional moisture from the marinade deters tall flames from reaching the meat and protects the food from charring. Cassini recommends keeping flames low and steady. Resist pouring additional marinade over meat while on the grill so that the flames don’t flare up toward the food.

Use Grilling Tools

Grill pans, metal grilling baskets and even aluminum foil can all help cook food safely. Toss food in a grill pan with edges and perforations to drain the fat, without worrying that food will fall through the slats. Grill baskets also allow the food to cook evenly and are great for smaller vegetables and delicate meats like flaky fish. A simple foil wrap, protects foods like potatoes: sprinkle them with some herbs, olive oil and garlic before wrapping, and you can roast them right on the grill surface. Natural wraps work, too. Gibbs suggests soaking corn in water for 15 minutes and grilling it, husk on.

Grill Healthy Fruits and Veggies

Vegetables and fruit are a healthy addition to the grill and can be added to the top rack while cooking smaller portions of protein. Seasonal summer vegetables like summer squash or zucchini “boats,” can be hollowed and prepared with a bit of pasta sauce and cheese. Mcilhenny enjoys grilling miniature sweet peppers; she recommends exploring farmers markets or local farm stands to discover new vegetables.

Grilling can be a gateway to trying fresh foods -- a healthy habit year-round. The UVM Health Network offers several programs to encourage access to fresh, local food for all, including Wellness Rx and Well Fed at Elizabethtown Community Hospital, Health Care Share at Central Vermont Medical Center and the Children’s Food Security Fund at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

Clean Your Grill

Finally, don’t forget to clean the grill after each use. Bits of burnt food on the grate contain harmful compounds that may stick to your food next time you cook. Scrubbing the grate with a wire brush and water, or with cleaning spray for tougher spots, removes charred food particles. Cleaning the grill helps minimize the risk of contaminating your food with carcinogens over time.

With just a few tweaks you can enjoy a safer, healthier grilled dinner. What healthy recipes will you grill this summer?

Recipes courtesy of Anne Mcilhenny, Chief Clinical Dietitian/Diabetes Educator, Alice Hyde Medical Center

Vietnamese Grilled Lemon Grass Chicken


  • ¼ cup minced lemongrass (located in the produce section of many grocery stores)
  • 1 tablespoon Vietnamese fish sauce (located in the international section of many grocery stores, or Asian grocery stores)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 minced shallot
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil (can substitute peanut or other oil)
  • 4-6 boneless skinless chicken thighs


  1. Combine all the ingredients, except the chicken, in a mixing bowl. Whisk to combine.
  2. Add the chicken and marinate at least 20 minutes.
  3. Grill chicken thighs on medium heat until tender/nicely browned and cooked through.

Adapted from The Best of Vietnamese & Thai Cooking

Marinade for Grilled Vegetables


  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Juice from ½ lemon
  • ¼ cup chopped scallions
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil leaves (or other fresh herbs)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
  • Ground pepper


  1. Whisk oil and lemon juice together.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and whisk until combined.

Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook

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