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The new healthy BBQ

Rethinking the summer favorite


by Heather Bailey

CNC, founder of the Optimal Kitchen

The classic summer BBQ, an American staple and summer favorite everyone looks forward to, will likely take on a new form this year. Neighborhood BBQs will be reduced to immediate families and those prize cuts of meat might simply not be available. While the traditional American BBQ of burgers and hot dogs will always be a perennial favorite, many people are looking to make the shift towards a healthier plant-based diet. The good news is that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break out the grill this summer. Instead, there is a huge variety of delicious vegetables bold enough and hearty enough to stand up to that grill, so why not get out there and start cooking.

Personally, I am excited because as a plant-based chef, the prospect that a portobello mushroom in a balsamic marinade or a smoked chili sweet potato plank might take center stage is a great step towards improving our personal health and the health of the planet.

Keys to successful grilling:

Never marinate fish or seafood for more than 30 mins
because the acids in the marinade will begin to actually cook the fish as well as break down the muscle making the fish mushy.

Make sure the grill is clean and HOT
before you place vegetables on it, a cold grill is what makes food stick!

Refrain from constantly flipping or moving food
while it is cooking on the grill, place it down and let that side completely cook, then flip and cook until done.

Be safe,
learn how to use your grill safely before lighting it and follow all manufacturers’ directions.


With access to meats limited, this is the time to opt for meat alternatives like mushrooms and sweet potatoes or to shop your garden, whether corn, zucchini, squash or asparagus. Mushrooms are a favorite on the grill because their meaty and hearty textures stand up well to heat and they act like a sponge to soak up all that delicious marinade. A great source of protein and fiber, mushrooms offer a variety of Vitamin B compounds and Selenium, which makes them ideal for boosting our immune systems. In a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, British researchers studied the effects of Selenium on Covid-19 and discovered that areas with Selenium deficiencies had poorer outcomes from the disease than areas whose populations had a Selenium-rich diet. So, now is definitely the time to embrace mushrooms.

A marinated portobello mushroom, sweet potato flank or cauliflower steak are great stand-ins for steak, while smaller portobellos or a couple large Shiitake mushrooms grilled and stacked with lettuce, tomato and onion can act as the perfect veggie burger. In fact, a lot of pre-made veggie burgers on the market don’t actually grill well, tending to be too crumbly and fragile to stand up to the heat and surface of grill grates. Some of the new Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger varieties have a better texture for grilling, but the jury is still out on how healthy these heavily processed plant-based burgers are for us.

Get inspired with the below chart. Simply mix and match an item from each column, and feel free to use multiple spices and seasonings to punch up the flavor as desired.



Lemon Juice
Balsamic Vinegar
Lime Juice
Rice Wine Vinegar
Pineapple Juice
Cider Vinegar




Dijon Mustard
Maple Syrup
Brown Mustard
Honey Mustard
Agave Syrup


Soy Sauce


We all love BBQ because of the deep smoky flavors. The great thing is those same flavors can be infused into a wide variety of vegetables and even some fruits using marinades and rubs, much like with meats. Marinades give loads of flavor to vegetables and make them far more interesting than just plain grilled, and chances are you probably already have on-hand all the ingredients needed to make a variety of marinades.

There is a simple formula when it comes to marinades:

  1. Oil - Whether olive, sesame or grape seed oil, your marinade needs a bit of oil for flavor and to help prevent sticking
  2. Acid - This comes in the form of citrus juices, like lemon and lime, vinegars or wine and contain compounds that help soften both flavor and tenderize foods
  3. Seasonings - These could be dried spices, fresh herbs, chopped garlic or ginger
  4. Cling – It’s good to add substances, like honey or maple syrup, which have the ability to help your marinade cling to vegetables. If you don’t want to use something sweet, try something creamy like mustard

_the RECIPE box



Here’s a perfect grill-friendly recipe anchored by a blend of traditional Mediterranean flavors. Feel free to toss in some large slices of zucchini, summer squash or even peppers if you have them on hand. Keep in mind if your veggies are a bit mushy because you are shopping weekly, no one notices once they are grilled.

- 1 cup fresh basil leaves (save ¼ cup) - 4 garlic cloves - ¼ cup balsamic vinegar - Juice and zest of 1 lemon - Salt and pepper to taste - 4 large Portobello Mushroom caps, stems removed
  1. Blend together first five ingredients in food processor, it will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week
  2. Place mushrooms in marinade a few hours before grilling
  3. Place mushrooms on the grill (be sure to shake off excess marinade so that oil doesn’t drip onto the flames causing a flare) and cover the grill for 5 mins
  4. Check the mushrooms and if they appear dry around the edges go ahead and flip then cover and cook an additional 5 mins, large mushrooms may need a few more minutes on each side
  5. Remove from heat and top with chopped fresh basil and a dollop of pesto and serve


This next recipe brings us more traditional BBQ flavors and another one of my favorite vegetable stand-ins for the grill, the Sweet Potato Plank. Sweet potatoes are about as close as you can get to an almost perfect food. They are high in fiber and loaded with Vitamins A, B and C, as well as a variety of minerals such as Iron, Calcium and that increasingly important Selenium that works to activate those antioxidant, immune-boosting compounds that keep us healthy.

- ½ cup fresh cilantro - ¼ cup fresh lime juice - ½ red onion - 2-3 chipotles in adobo, include at least a tbs of the adobo juice from the can - ½ cup olive oil - salt and pepper to taste - 3-4 medium size sweet potatoes
  1. Place first 6 ingredients in blender, while blending slowly add olive oil so that marinade emulsifies, it will keep tightly sealed in refrigerator for up to a week
  2. Wash your sweet potatoes and place them skin on in a 375 degrees oven for 6 to 8 minutes (skin on)
  3. Check them and if the sweet potatoes start to feel the slightest bit softer, remove from oven and let cool. You can do this the day before or in the morning if it is easier
  4. Once cool, slice the sweet potatoes lengthwise into ½ inch planks and cover with marinade and let them soak up the marinade for at least 1 hour and up to 8
  5. Get the grill hot and place the sweet potato planks on the grill and let cook for 5 mins before flipping. They will get almost caramelized caused by the sticky substance that connects the skin to the flesh of the potato
  6. Cook an additional 5 to 8 mins until soft
This marinade is also delicious on corn, just brush it right on with a basting brush and toss ears on the grill.


The next recipe uses an Asian-inspired marinade which pairs perfectly with grilled peppers and even cauliflower steaks. We are grilling up some baby Bok Choy. These tiny Asian cabbages have become popular because they are more tender and flavorful than their full-size cousins. You can leave them whole if they are small or cut in half if they are a bit larger because you want them to cook thoroughly.

- 2 tbsp sesame oil - ¼ cup olive oil - ¼ cup good quality soy sauce, preferably tamari or even coconut aminos - 2 tbsp honey, blue agave or maple syrup - 2 inch piece of fresh ginger grated or minced - 3 tbsp sesame seeds - 4 to 6 heads of baby bok choy
  1. Combine the first six ingredients in a bowl, it will be a thick marinade which clings well to the small heads
  2. Toss the bok choy in the marinade and be sure it gets inside the leaves especially if you are leaving the heads whole, rub it in between the leaves
  3. Get your grill good and hot before you put the bok choy on, place them flat side down if cut
  4. Cover the grill for a few minutes then turn the bok choy, continue until cooked all the way around


For a fantastic Asian-inspired summer meal pair any dish Sriracha with a Thai Noodle Salad for a completely different take on the summer BBQ.

- 1 box wg vermicelli, soba or rice noodle (cooked and drained and rinsed in cold water) - 1 cup napa cabbage (shredded) - 1 red or yellow bell pepper - 1 small bunch of scallions, sliced thinly - ¼ cup fresh cilantro or Thai basil - 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger - ¼ cup tamari - ¼ cup rice wine vinegar - ¼ cup sesame oil - ¼ tsp cayenne pepper or Sriracha to taste
  1. Toss all ingredients in a large bowl together, be sure to thoroughly coat all noodles with sauce. If necessary, add more soy sauce or rice wine vinegar. This salad needs to sit and absorb flavors into the noodles before serving. Best at room temp, not cold straight out of the fridge.
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