When you daydream about a weekend camping trip, do you visualize grilling wieners and burgers and kicking back in your camp chair with a cold beer? You’re not alone. Barbecuing plays a big part in defining the RV lifestyle. But just because you have taken a respite from the stress of everyday living to enjoy camping in the great outdoors doesn’t mean you have to abandon the healthy eating habits you follow at home—especially when it comes to what and how you barbecue.
If you are the head barbecue cook, there is no reason why you can’t produce both tasty and healthy food on the grill. Here are a few tips on healthy barbecuing, including a word or two on equipment.
Which is healthier: Gas or Charcoal?
Gas burns cleaner, is more convenient, and with an adapter kit you can hook your gas grill up to your rig’s propane tank for a quick and easy setup. Charcoal emits more carbon monoxide and soot. However, many people say they prefer the taste of food cooked over charcoal to gas, though it is the smoky burning off of fat drippings from meats that creates that barbecue taste. Use additive-free charcoal and don’t use lighter fluid as that can leave your food with off tastes. No studies have shown either gas or charcoal to be healthier.
Whichever you use, clean the grill before each use to eliminate the charred food remains that contain nasty carcinogens that could cause cancer. Preheat the grill for about 15-20 minutes—get it HOT—before cooking to rid the grill of any bacteria. A hot grill helps to prevent sticking, sears food to seal moisture inside, and caramelizes the food, improving the flavors.
Use oil or a cooking spray also on the grill (apply before heating the grill—not when it is hot) to prevent sticking. Or try this to enhance your food taste: cut a red or yellow onion in half, soak the surface with olive oil (the healthiest of oils) and rub the onion over the grill to oil it and add a touch of flavor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that you use separate cutting boards, utensils and dishes for raw and cooked foods, refrigerate your meats while marinating, and never use that marinade for basting—instead use a fresh batch. Marinades, in addition to adding flavor to your grilled food, also reduce the chance of forming the carcinogenic HCAs (heterocyclic amines) in grilled poultry, red meat and fish by as much as 92 to 99 percent. That’s a huge safety factor—marinate for your health and for good taste.
Your supermarket shelves offer a wide variety of sauces and marinades, but you can also make your own. Use a combination of these three basics (from MyRecipes.com):
Acid: Wine, vinegar, citrus juice, beer and yogurt weaken the proteins in meat and seafood, making them more tender and moist. Acidic ingredients also tend to make fish taste delicate and less fishy.
Fat: Usually oil but also coconut milk. It adds moisture and helps keep food from sticking to the grill.
Aromatics: Garlic, citrus zest, lemongrass, minced chiles and herbs penetrate the surface of the meat, giving it flavor. Experiment with whatever appeals to you, from pesto to pepper jelly.
Or get really fancy and whip up this easy-to-prepare anchovy and herb marinade:
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon minced anchovy
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
The preparation is simple: Whisk all the ingredients together, add beef, and turn to coat.
Fish, chicken and meat—whether marinated or naked—are barbecue favorites, but are your guests and family members burger and hot dog traditionalists? You can make alterations to some traditions for healthier, lower calorie choices. Start by substituting a 100 percent whole-wheat bun for the soggy white one. It will add fiber and reduce sugar. And what about making it an open face, or single slice treat? Try using a big romaine lettuce leaf for the top layer.
Instead of cooking a pork hot dog (300 calories, 25 grams of fat), choose a low-fat turkey hot dog or burger (160 calories, 9 grams of fat) or even better, a veggie burger (110 calories, 4 grams of fat). However, according to Dr. Kristie Leong, a writer on health and diet, “The average turkey hot dog is only marginally healthier than its beefier cousin. The best option is to look for low-fat turkey hot dogs that are nitrite free and low in salt. Otherwise, it’s best to eat turkey hot dogs or any other hot dog only as a special treat.”
And watch those add-ons. Instead of adding high-fat cheese, mayo or bacon to your burger, go for mustard, lettuce, onion and tomato for lots of vitamins and zero fat.
Splurge for a digital meat thermometer (under $25) for your grilling arsenal. The best—and safest—way to determine whether meat is done is to check the internal temperature by sticking your thermometer into the thickest part and comparing the readout to a meat chart.
Also add a grill basket for food that might slip through the grill rack, soft fish that flake when turning, and fish chunks or chicken nuggets. Some baskets come with a top and bottom with a handle so you can turn over all the food at one time. They are also great for grilling chopped vegetables.
And that leads us to . . . grilled vegetables
Chunks of red and yellow bell pepper (cut into quarters or halves), yellow squash, zucchini (sliced lengthwise), onions (cut in half or quarters), asparagus, corn on the cob, and mushrooms just taste better when grilled. Sprinkle with some balsamic vinegar or use a low-calorie Caesar salad dressing or other marinade. Blistering and slightly charring red peppers brings out the natural sweetness and adds a smoky flavor.
Cut various veggies to bite-size to make kabobs. Turn the skewer frequently, and don’t forget to use a hot pad or barbecue mitt. Remove the veggies and put in a bowl to serve; they make a colorful and mouthwatering treat.
You can also cook vegetables in an aluminum foil pouch. Place veggies on foil, add a tablespoon of olive oil and roll veggies around on foil to coat, then sprinkle with a little salt, black pepper, oregano, garlic, or rosemary—whatever flavors you like. Close up the pouch and fold the corners over and place on grill (if you are using briquettes do not place pouch over the hottest part).
For corn-on-the-cob, soak the ears in the husks in cold water for an hour or more prior to cooking. Pull the husks down and rub the ears with a little olive oil or butter, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and maybe some Parmesan, thyme or other spice. Tie husks back together at the top of the ear and place directly on the grill. Cook about 5 minutes then turn a quarter turn. Grill until husks are a golden brown, but you can test doneness by opening husk slightly and sticking kernels with a fork. Serve in the husks for the fun of opening the steaming corn on your plate.
But if your party still likes the traditional macaroni and potato salad along with their barbecued meat and veggies, watch for the calorie red alert! Potatoes are more nutritious if you leave the skins on, especially the little red and Yukon golds. Substitute nonfat Greek yogurt or reduced fat, low-calorie Caesar or ranch dressing for the mayo. Add onions, celery, pickles, etc. to add some crunch and zip and shake on some ground black or red pepper (cayenne).
There you have it, the basics for healthy and tasty grilling. You can find lots of variations for grilling meats and veggies on the Internet if you want to be creative or to experiment. And don’t forget to add in some physical activity after you chow down: hiking, biking, walking, throwing a Frisbee, climbing a tree—it doesn’t matter what—just get up and get moving and you have the perfect prescription for a fun and healthy summer.
Bob Difley was a full-time RVer for 17 years and a regional general manager for a national RV rental and sales company. His articles and photos have appeared in numerous publications.