The Omnivore's Green Grill
Photo: Another Pint Please/Flickr
During the long, hot summer days, grillers across the country sear and flip their way through millions of burgers, cuts of chicken, and fish fillets. Indeed, Americans eat 67 pounds of beef and 59.2 pounds of chicken each every year, plus 16 pounds of seafood. Yet worries about cholesterol, contaminated meat, and dwindling sea life make a more omnivorous approach attractive. Adding fruit and vegetables to the mix, making choosier meat selections, learning which labels to trust, and knowing when your plate and stomach are full enough--these are the basic tactics of the grilling omnivore. And what's not to love about having more reasons to grill more kinds of food?
Vegetables and Fruit--Buy Fresh From the Farmer
Start with the veggies. Grilling offers very tempting options for vegetables--whether it's searing thick-cut slabs of jicama or portobellos, skewering bite-sized chunks of onion, green pepper and tomatoes, or grilling a salad. The New York Times' Mark Bittman even recommends barbecuing slices of watermelon with cheese. And then, of course, there's traditional grilled corn--add a dash of salt and lime juice or chili powder when serving as counterpoint to the natural sugars.
- Go for local and heritage varieties--Check your farmers' market for the freshest corn. NRDC Eat Local can help you find good local produce and farmers' markets
- Think "biodiversity" when picking over the market stalls--corn is great, but to fill out your kebabs and add color to the plate a variety of fresh produce is best both for you and for helping maintain a healthy, diverse ecosystem that can sustain songbirds, butterflies and many other creatures. So grab the fresh asparagus, the poblano chiles, and whatever else catches your eye at the farmers' market.
- Remember, marinades and sauces enhance the marvelous chemistry of grilling, turning kebabs into aromatic Mediterranean or South East Asian dishes.
- Soy burgers and dogs are free of heart-damaging saturated fats, and many have great flavor and texture, but look for local, certified organic or "GMO-free" soy products.
Choose Better Meat and Poultry
The hamburger may be the icon of the American grill, but there are good reasons for expanding your chances beyond the patty-and-two-buns--and for picking the best beef, pork, or lamb for your burgers when you do serve them.
USDA Organic, grass-fed and humanely-raised are three key labels to look for when purchasing meat and poultry if for no other reason than to keep antibiotics working. Since the 1950s, many U.S. meat producers have pumped healthy livestock full of antibiotics to prevent diseases in crowded conditions and artificially boost animal growth rates. As much as 80 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are used on animals, and it's estimated that 83 percent of antibiotics used on animals are administered to entire herds or flocks, never mind which animals are sick and which aren't. Giving antibiotics to a healthy animal may cause it to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria which may then be transferred to humans.
The 2011 ground turkey recall brought home the fatal threat posed by drug-resistant Salmonella and other bacteria in our food supply. When shopping for meat and poultry, check your farmers' market for locally raised meat and poultry. Look for these labels that certify products come from farms that only use antibiotics on animals to cure infections and not for any other "non-therapeutic" uses:
Animals raised under these standards must be given vegetarian feed, without antibiotics or growth hormones, and often enjoy far better living conditions than those at CAFOs. (See "Labels" page for more information).
Pick Seafood for Safety and Sustainability
Smaller fish that are lower on the food chain, herbivorous fish in particular, tend to be plentiful and better for your health because they contain less mercury. And they offer plenty of great options for grilling, whether squid, macke rel, catfish, sardines, or barrimundi. For recipes, check out NRDC's Sustainable Seafood Guide – try the "Fish Tacos with Grilled Corn," a mouthwatering South-of-the-Border take on grilling. This guide also provides questions to ask when purchasing any of the five most popular five in the United States, including shrimp, salmon, tilapia, pollock and canned tuna, as well as a shopping guide, a list of higher and lower mercury fish, and information about sustainable fishing.
If you can purchase seafood from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishery, do so; MSC certification is rigorous and not easily awarded. EcoFish and Wild Planet Foods are retailers that only sell sustainable seafood products, and can ship them directly to you if there isn't a nearby store that sells the same product.
Where those options aren't available, seek out fish caught locally in preference to those caught outside the United States. American seafood isn't perfect, but the U.S. variety of a particular type of fish is generally better than its imported counterpart because this country has stricter fishing and farming standards than do other parts of the world.
Watch Your Waste and Your Health
Grilling outdoors is an art form and if you're a novice griller, it's all too easy to waste food by overcooking. This is only one reason, propane is preferable to charcoal, but it's important. Propane cooking grants you an unmatched level of control and evenness of heat over the grill's surface--and that means less burnt food and, more importantly for your health, less undercooked food. The environmental cost of wasted food is staggering: 25 percent of all freshwater and 4 percent of all oil consumed in this country are used to produce food that is never eaten.
Always, always, always check your food with a meat thermometer to ensure it's reached the proper internal temperature: 160°F for ground beef and all cuts of pork; 145°F for beef and lamb roasts, steaks and chops; 170°F poultry thighs and breasts; and 180°F whole birds. Remember: Checking the color of meat does not protect you--even if there is no trace of pink in the middle, pathogens may be present (see "Food Handling and Preparation" page for more health tips and information).