How to use healthy marinades for cooking on the grill

Cooking outdoors on grill. Tasty vegetarian food. Healthy and organic cuisine. Unrecognizable people.

For many people, summertime equals grilling time. Before you throw a steak on the grill, consider the marinade you’re using.

“Many store-bought marinades are pretty unhealthy,” says Ashley Kiser, a registered dietitian with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Fortunately, it’s easy to do something about that without losing the flavor or tenderizing benefits of marinades.”

Why marinades are often unhealthy

Ashley Kiser: Many of the marinades you can buy at the grocery store are high in sodium or sugar—or both. The sodium content of some marinades can make them a less-desirable choice for people trying to limit their salt intake. When the meat spends a long time soaking in the marinade, it absorbs some of that sodium.

Improper use of marinades

Ashley Kiser: People often don’t use marinades correctly. If you don’t handle them correctly, you might be exposed to bacteria that can result in food poisoning.

A few tips:

  • Marinate raw meat in food-safe containers inside the refrigerator. Hint: don’t use metal containers.
  • Don’t let the meat sit in the marinade too long. It can actually make the meat tough.
  • Set aside any marinade that you plan to use as a sauce in a separate container. Don’t let it touch the raw meat.
  • If you’re marinating raw meat and vegetables in the same sauce, use separate containers.
  • If the marinade has touched raw meat and you want to use it as a sauce, heat it up to a boil first to destroy any bacteria.
  • Wash any reusable containers used to marinate raw meat with warm soapy water afterward.

Try these healthy marinades

Ashley Kiser: Instead of just buying the first bottle of marinade that catches your eye and gambling on the sugar/salt content, consider making your own healthier marinade at home.

Here are three possible combinations that you can whisk up in your own kitchen:

Cilantro Lime

½ fresh squeezed lime juice
Zest from limes
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon of salt (optional)
1/3 cup loosely packed and chopped cilantro


½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove minced garlic
½ teaspoon of salt (optional)
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning


1/2 cup barbecue sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon of salt (optional)
¼  teaspoon ground pepper

Experiment and enjoy

Try other combinations of flavors and meats, too, to see what tickles your tongue. You could experiment by mixing a citrus juice like lemon juice with olive oil, minced garlic, and other chopped herbs for a simple, zesty marinade.

“You don’t have to sacrifice flavor to be healthy when it comes to marinating food for the grill,” says Ashley. “Also, please remember to be mindful about using your marinades so that you don’t accidentally cross contaminate your foods.”

More from Ashley Kiser on WellTuned

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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