Ribs, brisket, pulled pork, steak, wings, burgers—BBQ is full of big bold flavors and rich decadent dishes. It’s the perfect comfort food, the ideal game day treat, an occasional indulgence at a cookout or party. It’s deserving of numerous accolades and adjectives. However, healthy isn't usually one of them.
For most of us, BBQ isn’t a staple of our daily diet. All that great taste is typically owed to fat, fat that cooks down and melts, basting the meat in a rich and flavorful bath. Needless to say, you soak up all those delicious calories with each blissful bite.
However, while a daily dose of traditional BBQ may not be doctor prescribed, there are healthy BBQ options. Before you get up-in-arms outraged over the suggestion that anything could replace a perfectly-barked brisket, let’s make one thing clear: there are no substitutes for true BBQ. But, if you love nothing more than grilled and smoked food in the summer, there are healthy options that pack a ton of flavor but won’t cause you to pack on the pounds.
Beef gets a bad rap because many of the red meat options we love—burgers and rib eye and prime rib—are high in calories and saturated fat. However, high in protein, B vitamins, and iron, beef also has many health benefits, and those benefits can be enhanced by choosing grass-fed beef, which is leaner, has fewer calories, and contains more omega-3 fatty acids.
The trick is to find cuts of beef that strike a good balance between flavor and nutrition, like lean hamburger and steaks. Although the most popular cuts of steak, like rib eye and New York strip have a lot of intramuscular fat—that “marbling” results in increased flavor and tenderness—there are plenty of lean and extra lean cuts. The USDA defines a lean cut a 3.5 ounce serving with less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol. Meanwhile, an extra lean cut has less than 5 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 95 mg of cholesterol.
While leaner cuts of beef can be less forgiving and become tough if not marinated or cooked correctly, many take well to the high and fast heat of grilling. Below are examples extra lean and lean cuts of beef:
- Extra Lean Cuts
- eye round roast and steak
- sirloin tip side steak
- top round roast and steak
- bottom round roast and steak
- top sirloin steak
- Lean Cuts
- top loin steak
- shoulder petite medallions
- flank steak
- tri-tip roast and steak
- tenderloin roast and steak
When you mention pork in the same breath as BBQ, people’s minds automatically go to pulled pork, which is typically made from Boston butt or pork shoulder, both of which are fatty cuts with lots of connective tissue that breaks down when cooked low and slow. However, there are plenty of healthy pork options, including lean pork chops, pork loin, and pork tenderloin.
If what you remember of pork is the dry and tough roast your mother used to serve, give it another chance. New FDA recommendations make it safe to cook pork to a lower internal temperature—most chefs recommend cooking to 145°F—so it stays moist and tender, even super lean cuts like tenderloin.
Tender and flavorful with almost no fat, pork tenderloin is unbeatable when smoked on the grill and makes delicious sandwiches. And because it’s so lean, with no fat or connective tissue to cook down, it doesn’t have to cook nearly as long. While a Boston butt might take 9-10 hours to cook, a tenderloin will finish in 2-3 hours, making it a good alternative to pulled pork. Just don’t try to shred it like a butt. Tenderloin should be sliced or sliced then cut into cubes.
Grilled chicken is a staple of nearly every neighborhood cookout. Of all the proteins commonly cooked in BBQ, chicken is probably the leanest and healthiest. Of the two types of meat found on chicken, white meat is a healthier option than the dark meat. Although both are lighter and leaner than beef, a serving of white meat has fewer calories and less fat. And, although its crispy and delicious, eating the skin adds extra calories, fat, and cholesterol.
If you want healthy BBQ chicken, go with skinless white meat. Be careful, though. Because it’s lean, white meat dries out quickly over direct heat. Your best bet is to either marinate the chicken and/or cook it over medium heat. Another good method is to cut the chicken into smaller pieces, which will allow the outside and inside to cook at a more even rate.
Not nearly enough people cook seafood on their grill or smoker, which is a shame. Light, lean, and adaptable to a variety of flavors and styles, fresh seafood is always a winner in the summer months. Whether you like to indulge in lobster and scallops or simply enjoy a cod filet or salmon steak, it’s almost always better grilled or smoked.
Part of the problem is that not enough people feel confident cooking seafood on the grill—the gaping grates and delicate meat have combined to ruin many a meal. However, with the number of seafood grates and baskets on the market, there’s no need to fear; you can safely and confidently cook seafood without worry of losing dinner to the flames.
In BBQ, vegetables are almost an afterthought, if they’re given any thought at all. But vegetables cooked on the grill are some of the best vegetables you’ll ever taste, and are often a highlight of the cookout (seriously). Many people are accustomed to cooking corn, peppers and onions on the grill. However, there’s really no limit to what vegetables you can cook. Sweet potatoes and avocado are amazing. Brussels sprouts and asparagus take on deeper earthy flavors. Grilled zucchini and summer squash planks are great seasoned with olive oil and Parmesan.
Vegetables don’t have to settle for being sides either. There are plenty of recipes that use them as the main course, including Portobello mushroom “burgers” and grilled eggplant stacks.
Bison: the Burger Alternative
For many people, the summer BBQ season is about one thing: burgers. Is there anything more quintessentially American than burgers on the grill? Yet most of the burger being cooked is, at best, 20% lean, making your beloved cheeseburger more of an occasional indulgence than a healthy choice.
However, if you’re willing to open your mind to other options, burgers can become a regular part of your summer menu. Bison, like beef, is red meat that’s high in protein, vitamin B, and iron, but it’s a leaner red meat. Typically grass-fed, bison has fewer calories and saturated fat than conventional beef, and more healthy omega-3 fatty acids. According to the USDA, a grass-fed, three-ounce bison patty has 152 calories and 7 grams of fat, while even 90 percent lean beef burger averages 184 calories and 10 grams of fat.
Another bison benefit: unlike other burger alternatives (we're looking at you turkey), it has a rich “beefy” flavor—in fact, many people confuse it for lean beef (FYI: you can also get bison in steaks, roasts, and other cuts). You still have to be careful of what you put on that burger, though—piling on the bacon, cheese, and mayo can quickly turn that lean burger into a calorie bomb.