Summer Grilling on a Budget

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Even if your food budget is stretched tight this summer, you can still enjoy delicious meals cooked on the grill. The key is to make some strategic menu choices and use a few creative cooking techniques. None of this is complicated, so let’s get grilling!

Budget-friendly protein picks for the grill

With animal protein pretty pricey these days, it pays to choose carefully. Sure, you can usually find good deals on burgers and steak close to July 4th. Generally, however, your dollar will go further if you aren’t married to the idea of grilling beef.

  • Check for deals on shrimp or tilapia, for example—including frozen options. I stock up on frozen, raw, peeled shrimp when they’re on sale. They’re a great choice for grilling shrimp skewers in a flash on a hot summer night. And grilling fish in a foil packet is a fun, convenient, and nearly mess-free option. The foil seals in flavors and veggies can cook right along with the fish, all in one package.
  • Pork is generally less expensive than beef, and the many cuts available mean lots of creative grilling options. Consider tenderloin—so delicious when sliced into medallions after grilling. Boneless loin can be cut into chunks for kebabs, and of course ribs are always a summertime favorite. Even pork chops can rise from their “everyday” reputation with a tasty marinade.
  • Chicken legs and boneless thighs are more economical than chicken breast. They also retain more flavor and juiciness thanks to their higher fat content—perfect for grilling! Season them well with a dry rub, marinade, or sauce. 

Stretch the main dish

When I was a kid, “stretching out” the protein in a meal was standard procedure at our house (many mouths to feed). I can now appreciate the creativity my mother used to make a little bit of meat feed everyone. There’s no doubt that stretching expensive protein ingredients into more servings is a smart cost-saving strategy. And it’s not difficult when you’re cooking out. Consider these easy ideas:

Opt for something unexpected

Who says a cookout has to mean grilled meat or fish? Whether you’re grilling for your own family or for guests, mixing it up can be a refreshing change of pace. (It can give your wallet a break too!) Grilled flatbreads and pizza are delicious—and a fun activity for diners who want some input on their entrée. Or, if you’re grilling a main dish, why not also create a grilled appetizer? This bruschetta is one of my favorite “company’s coming” appetizers that takes advantage of summer’s ample tomato harvest. Don’t forget that vegetables can also be the grill star—and not just for vegetarians. Try this grilled vegetable salad, an unexpected divergence from the usual summer salad—simple and delicious.  These grilled, stuffed portobello mushrooms and easy grilled eggplant side dish are great options too.

Increase the sides

Bump up the side dishes to help ensure a budget-friendly cookout. Vegetables and fruit are usually less expensive and more nutritious than the main dish. And offering several sides gives you more food for not much more money. Grain- or pasta-based summer dishes provide great variety for a good price, like this Basmati Rice with Summer Vegetables. They’re also simple to prep and make for quick and healthy leftovers. 

Good deals on local seasonal vegetables and fruit are pretty easy to find during the height of the season. Your local grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and farm stands are all good places to shop.   Thankfully, it will soon be prime time for corn! Always a favorite summer side,  corn can be used in a variety of ways. Just make sure you don’t get caught in a produce rut. There are so many colorful and tasty options to complete your menu!

A few resources

Lastly, if you need a grilling refresher or beginner info and tips, check out this previous post. For budget-friendly cooking tips, Guiding Stars dietitian Allison Stowell and I created this Healthful Eating On a Budget webinar. We did this one too: Healthy Grilling, Avoiding the BBQ Pit(falls). Happy, healthy grilling this summer!