How and Why to Grill Plant-Based Foods

Looking for delicious yet healthy options for your summer barbecue? Tufts experts recommend an unexpected direction—the plant-based world

This article originally appeared in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, published each month by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. For more expert guidance on healthy cooking, eating, and living, subscribe here.

Grilling may traditionally lean towards burgers, brats, steaks, and other meats, but don’t let that limit your menu picks! That open flame maximizes and often transforms the flavor of veggies and fruits, too. From traditional choices like peppers and eggplant, to corn on the cob, caramelized fruit, or grilled romaine hearts, fruits and vegetables are a simple, versatile, and delicious way to add variety to your grill while packing more plant-based goodness onto your plate. 

Benefits to Plant-Based Grilling Options

“A plant-based approach to grilling is a great opportunity to get a more colorful variety of plant-based foods onto your plate, while reducing health risks associated with processed meats and grilled red meat,” says Alicia Romano, a registered dietitian at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center.

Processed meats like hot dogs and sausage are associated with negative health outcomes, including increased risk of colorectal cancer, and there is some evidence there might be health risks from high intake of charred red meat. “Carcinogens, particularly HCAs (heterocyclic amines), can form in charred red meat, and to a lesser extent in poultry and then fish,” Romano says.

Another perk to putting plants on the grill is they taste really good. “Cooking methods like grilling enhance the natural sugars in fruits and veggies, making them sweet and slightly smoky,” says Romano. Because grilling brings out their natural flavors, all your veggies will need is a little pepper, fresh herbs, some olive oil, and maybe a drizzle of vinegar or citrus juice. Grilled fruits like pineapple rings and peach and plum halves make great side dishes or desserts.

How to Grill Your Plant-Based Foods

Plant-based foods can be cooked directly, whole or cut, on the grill grates or in a grill basket or other cooking vessel. A simple preparation is to toss or brush your plant-based foods with oil or oil-based marinade and grill to desired doneness, basting with more oil or marinade as needed, turning as they show signs of browning. 

Romano recommends starting with thicker or courser textured vegetables and fruits cut in large or thick pieces, such as zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, peppers, asparagus, onion, sweet potato, slabs of cauliflower or broccoli, corn on the cob, portobello mushrooms, peaches, nectarines, plums, pineapple, and watermelon. If not using oil directly on your food, be sure to oil or spray the grill grates to prevent food from sticking.

Plant proteins, such as firm tofu and tempeh, can also be grilled. “I suggest marinating them in your favorite blend or basting during the grilling process,” says Romano. “I personally love a teriyaki flavor on tofu and a barbecue flavor with tempeh.” Veggie burgers, either homemade or store-bought, can also be flavorful alternatives to traditional grilling meats. Plant-based products that mimic animal proteins are growing in popularity, although you should be aware that many of these are highly processed foods and their overall health benefits are not clear at this time.

Grill baskets or skewers are great options for smaller foods that are likely to fall through the grill grate, such as those cut into smaller pieces and those that may fall apart, like red onions and lettuce or cabbage wedges. A cast iron skillet, sheet pan, or aluminum foil can also be used. If you prefer steamed veggies try cooking them in foil packets.

Don’t have a grill? “There are a number of budget friendly options, like tabletop grills and even grill pans, that can achieve the same delightful taste without the cost of a heavy-duty grill,” says Romano. You can even achieve a similar caramelizing with oven roasting, for that grilled veggie goodness all year long.

vegetables in the store

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This article originally appeared in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, published each month by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Find out how to get expert guidance on healthy cooking, eating, and living.

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