Thrill of the Grill

Summer barbecues, done right. Here’s how to ensure a healthy, tasty time.
Consider grilling up bison, grass-fed beef and veggies at your next summer barbecue, says Dr. Stacie Stephenson. Photo: Bob & Dawn Davis

By Dr. Stacie Stephenson

Could you be spending more time outside? I think most of us would answer yes. There are significant health benefits to outdoor time, from the vitamin D boost you get from being in the sun, to the mental health benefits of walking through a forest or along a beach, to the physical boost from outdoor activities like hiking, biking and gardening. 

There’s no time like July to get out more often. We’re in prime outdoor season. Fresh summer produce is peaking right now, so why not combine all the perks of summer by cooking and eating your meals outside? You know what they say: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. That’s exactly what I plan to do this summer—grill more food outdoors.

Typical grilled foods may not exactly meet your health goals, but cooking over a fire, hot and fast, can be a delicious and healthful way to prepare meals. Here are some of my favorite tips, and a few recipes, for taking your summer grilling to the next level.

Grill Veggies

Grilling is often associated with steaks, burgers and brats, but it’s also great for cooking vegetables. Try threading colorful veggie chunks (with or without cubes of salmon, tuna, chicken or lean beef) on water-soaked wooden skewers for fun shish kebabs, or throw big chunks or slices of olive oil-brushed onions, peppers and eggplant right onto the grill grate. Tender and smoky, grilled veggies taste so good that you might just eat more of them. 

If you want to chop your veggies or grill smaller veggies like cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, mesh grilling baskets allow you to cook without losing your dinner through the grate. You can also wrap up tasty mixtures like onions, mushrooms and pepper strips with seasonings and a drizzle of olive oil in foil packets for no-mess grilling. 

Burger Options

For the health-conscious burger lovers in your family (perhaps including you), veggie burgers are always an option; I like to grill big, saucer-shaped portobello mushrooms, brushed with oil and sprinkled with salt and seasonings, to enjoy in place of a greasy burger. 

Whatever the burger you choose, try wrapping it in a big lettuce leaf, cabbage leaf or lightly steamed collard greens, to cut back on unnecessary carbs. (I’ll save my carb allowance for a big bowl of mixed berries with a dollop of vanilla yogurt, thank you very much!)

Fresh summer produce is peaking. Why not combine the perks of summer by cooking and eating meals outside? Photo: Bob & Dawn Davis

Try Grilling Seafood and Game Meats

For less fat and more flavor, I enjoy a freshly grilled salmon fillet or other meaty fish, or a shrimp kebab, along with a side of grilled veggies. Or try bison or elk steaks instead of conventional beef—these meats have a better balance of healthful fats. 

Here are two of my favorite recipes for meat lovers: grilled bison rib-eye and bison sliders with avocado aioli in lettuce wraps, instead of boring hamburger buns. 

Grilled Bison Rib-Eye 

Note: You could also use a grass-fed beef strip steak, if you prefer a lower-fat cut of beef.

Serves 4 to 8

2 tablespoons avocado or grapeseed oil 

4 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon tamari

1 teaspoon sea salt 

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 10-ounce bison rib-eyes

2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms (white or baby bella)

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced into rings

1 tablespoon olive oil

In a large shallow pan that will fit all four steaks, whisk together the avocado or grapeseed oil, garlic powder, tamari, salt and pepper. Add the steaks and flip to coat. Cover and set aside to marinate on the counter until the steaks come to room temperature, about 30 minutes to an hour. 

Preheat the grill on high until it reaches 400 degrees with the lid on. 

Pile the mushrooms and onions on each of 4 large squares of foil. Drizzle with olive oil and season with more salt, pepper, garlic powder and smoked paprika. Wrap up the foil packets and place them on the grill, to the side.

Put the steaks on the center of the grill and cook for 5 to 7 minutes on each side (depending on thickness) for medium. Remove the steaks from the heat and put them on a plate. Cover and let them rest for 10 minutes.

While the steak is resting, check on the grilled veggies. They should be soft and aromatic. If they still look underdone, raise the heat and cook for a few more minutes. 

Serve the steaks topped with the mushrooms and onions, or serve the veggies on the side.

Bison Sliders With Avocado Aioli in Lettuce Wraps 

If you don’t want to buy steaks for a big group, or kids are present, add these sliders to the grill—a serving is two per person, or one each for little kids. 

Serves 8 to 16

2 pounds ground bison

3 cloves garlic, minced 

1 tablespoon garlic powder 

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon onion powder 

1 teaspoon ground black pepper 

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika 

For the Avocado Aioli:

2 avocados, mashed 

2 cloves garlic, minced 

1 teaspoon cilantro, minced 

Salt and ground black pepper to taste 

For the Wraps:

16 large leaves from 1 or 2 heads of Boston lettuce

2 or 3 Roma tomatoes, sliced (for a total of 16 slices)

Optional: Burger condiments of choice (ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, etc.) 

In a large bowl, add the ground bison, garlic, garlic powder, sea salt, onion powder, pepper and paprika. Mix with clean hands until fully combined, then set aside to come to room temperature, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Make the Avocado Aioli: In a small bowl, mix together the avocados, garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper. Cover and put it in the refrigerator. 

Preheat the grill on high until it reaches 400 degrees with the lid on.

Form 16 small patties from the ground meat mixture. Put the patties on the grill and cook for 3 to 5 minutes per side, or until desired doneness. 

Arrange the lettuce leaves on a platter and put a slider on each leaf. Top with a tomato slice, avocado aioli and/or any preferred condiments. 

Natural Options for Repelling Bugs

If it’s one thing that keeps people indoors during the summer, it’s bugs. When sitting outside to enjoy your grilled veggies, bug-repellent candles and torches made with natural botanicals can help. Sometimes, though, you will need to put something on your skin. 

Like me, you may not love the idea of coating your skin in toxic DEET-based sprays. I prefer natural options. Many companies are coming out with nontoxic insect repellents that use natural botanicals to keep bugs at bay. You may also find that essential oils do the trick. 

Try lemon eucalyptus oil, citronella oil, patchouli or vanilla extract. Neem oil is another natural botanical with insect-repelling properties. Apply frequently, or according to package directions. Different formulas seem to work better for different people, so you may need to try a few options before you find your perfect formula.