This could be the make-or-break weekend of your shape this summer.
As you gather with friends and family for holiday weekend parties and cookouts, will you go overboard on fattening food and drink, or will you devise a nutrition strategy that will help you look, and feel, your best during the next several weeks of shorts and T-shirt time?
The choices you make may well set the tone for the rest of the season, so we asked two experts – Sue Sims, a chef at the Sheridan Drive Wegmans in Williamsville, and registered dietitian Pat Salzer, health and wellness consultant for Univera Healthcare – how to get the most out of a few very important square feet of space:
1. Planning counts:
Before you start, make sure you’re ready to cook healthy and right, Sims said. She calls this “mental mis en place” – everything in its place. That means making sure she has a thermometer; a water bottle, in case of grill flare-ups; a brush and grapeseed-based basting oil flavored with herbs; some flavorful recipes; and a healthy mix of fruits, vegetables and lean meats.
Salzer urged that healthy grillers clean the grill before filling it with foods. “Scrub it with a brush before and after you grill,” she said, “because that keeps the buildup from those carcinogens left on the grill grates to a minimum. It also makes your food taste better.”
2. Start with vegetables:
Sims and Salzer urged grillers to build their offerings around vegetables instead of meats, using the “half-plate method”: a half plate of vegetables and a quarter plate each of proteins and fruits or whole grains.
“Think about redefining what we typically put on the grill,” Salzer said. “All right, cheeseburgers and sausage, take a step over. There’s more competition now and it’s nice to have the garden meet the grill.”
Sims recommends seasonal foods that will be at peak during the summer months, including featured local foods at regional grocery chains and farmers’ markets. “This is the season,” Sims said. “This is when food tastes the best, so why cloud it up with a bunch of bad stuff?”
3. Step outside your comfort zone:
Grilled salmon or mahi mahi are lean seafoods with omega-3s that “really transfer well compared to a burger,” Sims said. She recommends cooking salmon atop a food-grade cedar plank, and topping the fish with a small amount of brown sugar. Soak the plank in water for at least an hour beforehand.
Ditch starchy veggies in favor of asparagus, avocados, eggplant, jalapeños, onions, peppers, portabella mushrooms – even romaine lettuce halves, Salzer said. She and Sims also recommend grilling sliced apples, apricots, melons, nectarines, peaches, pineapple, plantains and watermelon.
“The sugars in the fruit begin to caramelize and it gives you a nice flavor,” Sims said. “It’s different – and simple.”
4. Think food safety:
Keep meats chilled before cooking, use different plates for raw and cooked meats, and cook to the proper temperature: 165 degrees for poultry, 160 for pork and ground meats, and 145 degrees for red meat and chops.
The way you cook will help. Start with a hot grill and sear foods quickly on each side, sealing in the juices, Sims said. Then lower the temperature to medium, slow cook it and “let it rest” for two to five minutes after it comes off the grill.
Salzer said studies have shown that flipping meats more often – particularly red meat – reduces the levels of E. coli bacteria. And she underlined that using a thermometer for proper temperatures is another healthy choice.
“With food-borne illness, you can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it,” she said, “but if you get sick, you will feel it.”
The Wegmans Meat Basics guide, which provides more details on how to best cook different kinds of meat, is free, and available at store meat counters.
5. Watch the sodium:
“Low salt does not have to mean low flavor,” Salzer said. “There’s so many other ways to season our food, whether it’s fresh herbs we’re growing or dried herbs we can buy in the store, or vinegars.”
Hot dogs and processed meats are loaded with salt and should be avoided, she said, and garlic, onions and fruits and vegetables all pack plenty of taste. “Many of those fruits and vegetables are also high in potassium,” she said, “and that also helps lower our blood pressure.”
6. Beware the sides:
“Instead of the traditional pasta salads and potato salads that can have lots of mayonnaise and not necessarily a lot of nutrition, if you made whole wheat pasta and added some grilled vegetables and put on a little bit of grated cheese, that would offer lots of nutrition,” Salzer said.
Chips and other processed snacks also can be avoided in favor of equally flavorful fruits. Grilled fruit with low-fat Greek yogurt is both simple and elegant, Sims said. “How easy is that and how healthy is that for dessert? You can have a casual backyard barbecue or a casual backyard event and you can do the same thing, you just change your glassware. Maybe you put your grilled fruit in a martini glass with a dollop of yogurt and a fresh piece of mint from the garden, or a drizzle of honey. Who wouldn’t like that?”
7. Watch those condiments:
“I can have a great salad, but if I put a bunch of dressing on it, it shoots up the calories,” Sims said. “I don’t need a lot of oil to put on.” Look to brush sauces on foods or use condiments as marinades or dipping sauces, instead of pouring them on.
Reading condiment labels also is key. The first ingredient today in many ketchups is high fructose corn syrup; look for one with tomatoes as the first ingredient, or try a tomato slice to cut down on the amount used, Salzer said. Wegmans has “wellness keys” for low sodium, vegan or gluten-free foods, Sims said.
8. Drink right:
Limit alcohol, sodas and fruit juices that add empty calories. Consider alternating between alcohol and water. “There’s so many ways you can flavor water, whether you’re looking at fresh blueberries or strawberries or slices of fresh cucumber,” Salzer said. “I’m growing mint and I grow rosemary, so I can put that in my water. That’s a way to have a non-caloric beverage that is basically free.
“With some of the other selections, it still comes down to that moderation,” she said, as does summer grilling in general.
“Moderation is the dietitian mantra,” Salzer said. “It all comes down to balance in so many parts of our lives, including food.”