The Fourth of July holiday is popular for fireworks and outdoor activities such as swimming and family picnics. Another popular July 4 tradition is firing up the grill for some outdoor cooking.
Not all foods for the grill are created equal, however. Many popular grill foods are high in fat, salt or sugar, and the addition of some sauces and rubs can suddenly push a meal into the unhealthy category.
That doesn't mean you have to grill rice cakes and carrots. In fact, healthy grilling is even easier to do than it sounds. It simply comes down to making better choices than what you might ordinarily pick to grill.
Haley Hall, a clinical dietician at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, said healthy grilling can be as simple as choosing slightly healthier versions of traditionally grilled foods.
"Hamburgers are something that people want to eat," she said. "Burgers can be done appropriately if you decrease the fat."
The Main Dish
Just because you're grilling healthier doesn't mean you can't have a great tasting meal. In fact, you may find that making minor substitutions to cut out fat and sugar actually makes for a meal that is just as delicious.
Hall said it is important to choose lean meats. This could include cooking turkey burgers or Portobello mushroom burgers instead of traditional hamburgers, and placing them on whole wheat buns. Chicken sausage also can be subbed for hot dogs, which tend to be very high in fat, and flank steak is a healthier option for those looking forward to grilling steak.
"It's just about finding lean meats," Hall said. "Portobello burgers are a great substitute for a hamburger because you still have something that looks very juicy."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also suggests trying lean meats such as top sirloin, pork loin, extra lean ground beef that is between 90 to 95 percent lean, turkey, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. USDA officials also suggest trimming away excess fat before cooking and draining fat that appears while cooking.
Another option is shish kabob skewers filled with a variety of grilled vegetables such as onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and squash, and lean proteins such as chicken or scallops. Fresh fruits such as pineapple and peach slices could also be incorporated into skewers. Hall said whole vegetables such as summer squash, various peppers and corn also can be tossed on the grill to act as side dishes. Whole potatoes wrapped in foil are another grilling option.
Top burgers with fresh vegetables and mustard, which is naturally fat free, but skip the cheese and mayonnaise, which can add a substantial amount of fat and calories to an otherwise healthy meal.
Avoid the Sauce
Less is better when it comes to oils, rubs, sauces and marinades. Most meats cook well without the addition of oils and sauces because even lean meat contains fat, and too often, individuals spend so much time adding rubs and marinades that they miss out on the natural flavors meats and vegetables offer.
"One of the big mistakes that people make is that they add way too much fat with the oil," Hall said. "Meat has fat anyway so you just need enough so that it doesn't stick."
In addition to using cooking oil sparingly, Hall advises using Olive Oil. She also favors adding fresh citrus juices such as orange, lemon or lime, or using balsamic vinegar. These lighter choices enhance the flavor, while still letting you enjoy the natural flavor of the meats or vegetables. Many vegetables and meats may not need any rub or sauce, much less an entire jar of barbecue sauce.
"Try to stay away from the store-bought sauces. Some are high in fat; some have a lot of sugar," Hall said. "We don't really realize that they contain a lot of salt and other processed ingredients. When it comes to ingredients in sauces and rubs, the simpler the better. Why would you want to cover your food with a bunch of sugary sauce?"
Side Dishes and Deserts
Many popular side dishes usually served with grilled foods are far from healthy. Macaroni salad, coleslaw, and chips with sour cream-based dips are high in fat and could spoil an otherwise healthy meal.
Grilled vegetables, fruit salad and a variety of fresh salads make great sides -- as long as those salads don't feature mayonnaise dressing. Sour cream for baked potatoes and cream cheese-based dips also should be skipped to achieve a healthy Fourth of July grill session.
Deviled eggs, which are often loaded with mayonnaise, can also be deceptively unhealthy. Boiled eggs or deviled eggs made with a mustard mixture are better choices.
Instead try fresh green salads, or a grilled corn salad with avocado, Hall said. Or make potato salad but use an oil and vinegar dressing instead of one that is mayonnaise-based.
In addition to cutting the fat by skipping the mayonnaise, it also makes it easier to keep food safe when grilling and eating outside since mayonnaise-based salads cannot safely remain outside for an extended period of time.
Hall also suggests a campfire cookout-style side dish featuring beans, such as black beans with onion and cilantro, a side that is both easy and tasty.
And instead of pies that are loaded with fat and sugar, she suggests grilled fruit with honey. Baked apples with cinnamon or fresh fruit salad are also a greater topper to a grilled meal.