American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Author | Professor of Nutrition


Grill Like a Pro, Part 2: Meats

Barbecue picnic

Cooking meats on the barbecue grill is one of the pleasures of summer, and if we do it right we can stay healthy at the same time. A fantastic marinade is one of the secrets to grilling meat like a pro. This one is my favorite and it is fantastic on chicken, beef, pork, fish and vegetables. 

Grilling Meats Like a Pro

  1. Choose leaner cuts like tri-tip, skirt steak, tenderloin. 
  2. Fatty cuts like strip steak, thick chops and ribs are special-occasion treats.
  3. Buy organic meats when possible to avoid hormones and antibiotics.
  4. Use the techniques below to make charred meats healthier.

Beef, Chicken, Turkey and Pork

Grilling meats can be challenging because the char we all love so much is not good for us, and neither is too much meat. There are compounds formed during the “charring” process that can act as cancer promoters in our bodies. These compounds, called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are formed when certain proteins in the meat come into contact with flames or high heat, like that from a barbecue grill. 

Grill marks without char is fine, like on a burger or steak cooked to medium/ medium-rare. To achieve this, start cooking on the hot part of the grill, and when the grill marks are perfect, move the meat to the cooler part of the grill to finish cooking. This technique will also protect the meat from becoming dry.

Once in a while a little char isn’t going to do much damage, but if you grill several times a week and beef, chicken or pork is always the center of the meal, those HCAs and all the saturated fat can really add up. 

Next week we will cover cooking plant-based proteins on the grill, to keep you healthy and well fed. 

How to Neutralize HCAs

The way to neutralize these HCA compounds is with herbs. Oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley and cilantro all have molecules that combine with HCAs and neutralize them before they can damage our cells. The herbs can be in a marinade or a dressing poured over the meat after cooking (or both!) to work. While fresh herbs taste best, dried herbs work too. 

If you usually marinate your food in Italian dressing, please try this instead. Look at the ingredients list on your dressing and then look at these ingredients. There is a big difference, and you will be able to taste it. Mixing this marinade takes about 6 minutes, including zesting the lemon and chopping the herbs and garlic. Make a double batch if you grill often, you will want more. 

Best Herb Marinade

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (one big lemon)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (if you like a little spice, use 1/2 tsp)
  • 1/2 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)
  • 4 strips of lemon zest (take strips off lemon with a peeler before juicing)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh herb such as basil, oregano, cilantro, dill, or a mix, chopped

Add lemon juice, salt, pepper flakes and pepper in a bowl and whisk to dissolve the salt. Add lemon zest and garlic, then pour olive oil into the bowl in a steady stream while whisking to emulsify. Add herbs and stir. That’s it! You will be very happy with how your food tastes when you use this marinade. It keeps for a week in the refrigerator, so you can always have some ready to go. 

You can marinate your meats from 15 minutes to 24 hours and they will come out great. Brush or drizzle some fresh marinade over the meat after cooking to brighten it up and bring out the freshness of the herbs and lemon. 

Once again, great flavor improves our health! Honestly truly healthy food can be so good. The antioxidants in this marinade also help keep our skin smooth and young-looking. Especially important after a day in the sun. 

Remember, vegetables and tofu don’t make HCA compounds, so you don’t need to worry about charring them.  Yes, you can grill tofu and next week I’m going to teach you exactly how to do it like a pro. 


Sausage is a busy cooks friend. Its already seasoned and can add quite a bit of flavor to a meal with very little work. I’ve found that chicken and turkey sausages can grill up tender and juicy, so you can take advantage of sausage’s ease and flavor while cutting back on saturated fat. Just keep the casing intact (use tongs instead of a fork to move them around) and the juices will stay inside the sausage. 

In 20 minutes you can grill up a platter of vegetables and sausage for a great meal. Add some corn on the cob and its spectacular. 

Fresh sausage from the deli counter is much better for our health than hot dogs or other processed, pre-cooked sausages. Processed meats like hot dogs are linked to increased rates of several kinds of cancers. 

If you have an Italian, German or other ethnic market or a butcher shop near you, they probably make their own fresh sausage. If not, use the best quality you can find and read the ingredient list. Again, if you can find organic sausage its worth the price. 

Charring sausage creates the same HCAs as charring other meats, so take them to brown but not charred. You can certainly drizzle some marinade over them once they are cooked, it will only enhance their flavor. 

The grill makes eating at home as quick as ordering take-out, and its fun. I hope this series of newsletters is inspiring you to get outside and enjoy cooking over the fire. 

Next week we will cover grilling tofu and veggie burgers that actually taste good. Stay with me, I promise it will be tasty. 

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