Spice up Your Protein!

During the summer months the grill on our deck gets a lot of use. My family spends a lot of time outside in the afternoons and evenings. Using the grill gives us the chance to enjoy playing outside without having to do a lot of actual cooking. With the days getting significantly warmer, I jump at any recipe that doesn’t require me to preheat my oven! 

To spice it up, I like creating simple marinades to add variety to our protein before grilling. Growing up, my family spent a lot of time grilling and I learned how to create simple marinades with very basic ingredients. The ratio I use to create my own marinades is three parts oil to one-part vinegar or lemon juice and then add a variety of seasonings or spices. Some of my favorite additions are garlic/garlic powder, Italian seasoning, dried herbs and to keep it simple, salt and pepper. You can also use bottled dressings to marinate your protein like Italian dressing or other oil-based dressings. Other family favorites at my house are the Homemade Teriyaki Sauce and the Honey Mustard Dressing recipe on Spend Smart. Eat Smart.

I have found that I get the best flavor when I marinate my protein in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to 2 hours. Meat proteins like chicken, pork and beef can soak in a marinade overnight if they are in a covered dish in the fridge. Fish is more delicate and 1 or 2 hours is plenty of marinating time. After you begin grilling, make sure you discard any leftover marinade that has been in contact with the uncooked meat because it is not safe to consume or re-use. Use clean plates and utensils after your protein is done cooking to avoid cross contamination. If you prefer meatless dishes, you can also marinate beans and tofu before cooking to add additional flavor. Pair your marinated protein with a quick side dish like Broccoli Salad or Pasta Salad to create a well-rounded summer meal! Watch this quick video on preparing honey mustard dressing as a marinade. I would love to hear your favorite summer recipes–share your go-to marinades with us! Cheers to creating your own marinades at home!

honey mustard marinade

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso is a Program Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. As a new mom she is always on the lookout for easy, healthy recipes to prepare for her family.

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Summer Grilling on a Budget

woman grilling outside meals cookingOur weather in Iowa has really warmed up lately and I’ve been firing up the grill a couple of times each week. The outdoor grill is a great tool for eating healthy and if you plan well, you can also save time and money. Here are a couple of tips for using your grill the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. way!

  1. Make the most of a hot grill. Every time you heat up your grill, you’re using fuel, either charcoal or propane. Make the most of that fuel by filling the grill, not just cooking one or two things. I like to fill one side of my grill with meat like chicken, hamburgers or pork chops. I put veggies on the other side. Zucchini (cut in half the long way), asparagus, sliced onions and large pieces of pepper grill very well. I pack up any leftovers for future meals. If I won’t get to them within 4 days, I freeze them in freezer bags. If I know I have tasty grilled meals in my fridge or freezer, I am far less likely to grab take out on the way home from work.
  1. Stretch meat by mixing with other foods. Grilling doesn’t have to be all about meat. The most expensive ingredient in a lot of meals is the meat. You can cut down on this cost by mixing the meat with whole grains like brown rice and additional protein sources like black beans. I love to season grilled chicken with spices like chili powder and cumin and then mix them with brown rice, black beans, grilled peppers and onions. I sprinkle a little hot sauce and shredded cheese on top and I’ve got a delicious, healthy meal!

I hope these tips will help you make your grill work a little harder for you!

Happy grilling!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Tips for Low Stress, Low Cost Entertaining

caufliflower saladThis weekend is Memorial Day. Are you entertaining friends or family? If so, a little advance planning will save dollars and make your weekend less stressful.

Here are some tips:

  • Grocery stores will feature picnic foods this week. If your family grills or picnics frequently, you may be able to stock up and save.
  • If you are barbequing, consider having everyone bring their own main dish and a side dish to share. Assign appetizers, fruit sides, vegetable sides, and desserts. Then you can supply the beverages, grill, tableware, etc.
  • If you aren’t grilling, consider using the more inexpensive beef or pork roasts to make a batch of shredded meat to put on buns or serve with rice. Another idea would be Any Day Chicken Salad.
  • If you are making the sides for the party, don’t go overboard with choices. The greater the variety, the greater the expense, more time spent in preparing, and usually more leftovers. I plan one starchy side like potato salad/baked beans/macaroni salad, a fruit or vegetable salad/tray, plus a simple dessert like bars or cookies. If you are having shredded meat as I mentioned before, think about a big bowl of rice (very cheap and super easy to make, especially if you cook it in the oven or a rice steamer). Here are some ideas from our recipe collection. These are all very simple to make so your kids can help you (kids tend to enjoy eating food they help make).

Creamy Cauliflower Saladfruit kabobs and yogurt

Pasta Salad

Fruit Salad

Fruit Kabobs with Yogurt Dip

Crunchy Cabbage Salad

Waldorf Summer Salad

As for the beverages make ice tea, lemonade or a drink mix and have water and lemon slices on hand.

Keep it simple and enjoy your guests.

Peggy Signature

Grilled Peaches…Yum Yum

Our SpendSmart.EatSmart poll the past month asked how many of you have cooked fruits or vegetables on the grill?   73% of you said you have grilled fruits and vegetables which is great!  Grilling brings out great flavors without a lot of added fat or sugar.  You do have to be careful that your food does not char on the outside before it heats all the way through.

This summer I tried grilling peaches for the first time, and they were delicious.  I did have trouble getting the pit out.  After a little research I learned that next time I should look for “freestone” peaches instead of “clingstone” because the pits are easier to remove.  The peach skin came off easily after I dipped the peaches for 10-15 seconds in boiling water.   The recipe I was using called for drizzling the peaches with balsamic vinegar and then sprinkling on brown sugar and letting the mixture sit for a while.  Other recipes just call for grilling the peaches and sprinkling with brown sugar after they are cooked.

Grilling the peaches was easy.  All you have to do is brush them with oil (I also oiled the grill grates). Place the peach halves face-down on the grill. Turn the peaches after 3 to 4 minutes, after they have given up the brightness in their color, sprinkle flat side (now facing up) with more brown sugar. Remove after another couple of minutes, or when you poke them with a fork and they are soft all the way through.

I served mine with frozen yogurt for dessert.  They would also be good as a side dish with grilled meat.

I think you could do pears and plums using the same process as the peaches.  Next I am going to try making cubed cantaloupe/grape kabobs and try brushing on honey with a bit of mint added.

Tip: Refrigerating peaches can make them mealy. Do not refrigerate your peaches unless you are sure they are ripe. You may prolong their shelf life, but the loss of quality isn’t worth it.


Ok, I admit it.  Most of the time when planning a meal I start with the protein food.  I think this is a carryover from growing up on a farm and having a freezer full of homegrown beef, pork and chicken to choose from.  The type of meat and how it will be prepared (grilled, broiled, oven roasted, pot roasted, stewed, etc.) effects the rest of the meal. My mom taught us the importance of matching the cooking method to the cut of meat.  I didn’t make the mistake of turning a great rump roast into a pot roast more than a couple times.

Where on the animal the cut of meat comes from, how long it is cooked and whether you use moist or direct heat effect juiciness and tenderness.  When a cut of meat is from a more used muscle (the fore and hind quarters of the animal), the stronger and, therefore, tougher the cut of meat will be.  The longer meat is cooked, the more liquid it loses, and the tougher it becomes.  Other factors that also influence tenderness and juiciness are the animal’s age at slaughter and the amount of fat.

My kids didn’t have the benefit of a freezer filled with different cuts of meat when they started cooking, so they are less prepared to match up the cooking methods with cuts.  They also have questions about how many servings per pound you can get from different cuts of meat (this varies by the amount of bone and fat there is).

The Beef-It’s What’s For Dinner web site has a pull down tab on the home page called Shopping for Beef where you can find several great resources you might want to bookmark. The Interactive Beef Case lets you choose a beef cut then tells you the recommended cooking method plus recipes using that cut.


I have been enjoying grilled chicken, sirloin steak and fish for lunch the past couple of weeks even though I haven’t taken the cover off the grill.  How do I do it?  I grill extra when I have the marinade prepared and the grill heated.  When everything is cooked I make 2 ounce portions, just enough to top my salad.   Then, before work, I prepare my lunch by putting greens and whatever raw vegetables I have in the vegetable drawer  –  carrots, broccoli, onion, mushrooms, or cucumbers – in a plastic container, add one of my meat/fish packets and a piece of fruit to my lunch bag and I am good to go.  When lunch time comes, I finish defrosting my meat/fish packet, slice it up and top my salad.  Yum.

The keys to this whole process are 1) working quickly so your food doesn’t sit out at room temperature for too long and 2)getting a tight seal.  Meat frozen incorrectly will suffer freezer burn in a few weeks. This means that air dries the meat and causes loss of flavor.

Pack foods in quantities that will be used for a single meal.  I used foil because I have very small amounts.  If you are freezing several portions, plastic freezer bags (not plastic storage bags, they are different) or commercial freezer paper may work better.   When packing several cuts in one package, put two layers of freezer paper between the pieces. This makes it easy to separate pieces for fast thawing.

When using plastic bags, take care to get all the air out of the bag before you seal it.  Press air from the bag by beginning at the bottom of the bag and moving toward the unfilled top part of the bag to prevent air from reentering.  Or you can use a clean straw inserted in the bag and inhale to remove the air before quickly closing the bag.

Illustrations in Methods of Wrapping show how to wrap food using foil, drugstore wrap, or butcher wrap.

After your food is wrapped, label it with the date and contents.  This helps you remember which foods need to be eaten first and what is in each package.

The last step is to store your food in a location in the freezer where you can easily grab it when you are making your lunch.

-pointers from Peggy

Grilling Made Easy and Safe

May is National Barbecue Month LogoAccording to a recent poll most of us think that cooking outdoors is easy, costs less, is more economical than dining out and encourages time outdoors.

My three favorite reasons to grill are: 1) it tastes good, 2) I don’t have to heat up the kitchen, and 3) cleanup is easier.  When done right, grilling meat and poultry is a healthy option because the excess fat drips away. Just avoid flame-ups and remove charred areas from meat before eating to avoid the development of potential carcinogens (cancer causing substances).

Hot dogs and hamburger are frequently on sale. Take advantage of special bulk prices on ground beef and make your own patties.  Lay your patties on a wax paper lined cookie sheet so they don’t stick together, freeze completely, and then transfer them to a freezer container for storage.  This way you can take out as many as you need for one grilling session.

Hot dogs and smoked bratwurst are easy to prepare because they are already fully cooked.  Just keep them cold until you are ready to grill and then make sure they are thoroughly reheated and steaming hot.  Fresh sausages, like fresh Italian and fresh bratwurst, need to be cooked slowly and evenly over mature coals until the sausage is gray throughout and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the sausage reads 160°F for meat sausage and 165°F for poultry sausage. Fresh sausage may be parboiled in water for 15 minutes and then grilled.  However, grilling should immediately follow parboiling; interrupted cooking is not recommended.

Hamburger on grill with meat therometer showing temperatureHamburgers are more difficult.  The trick is to get them to medium (160°F) doneness, until no longer pink in the center and juices show no pink color, without getting them charred on the outside.  It is not safe to eat rare hamburger because the process of grinding distributes any E. coli or other bacteria throughout the meat.  And now experts say the color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety.  A meat thermometer is the most reliable way to reduce risk of food-borne illness. Cook burger to 160 degrees and put them on a clean plate or platter.

Here’s more information on grilling:

Becoming the Grill Master


-pointers by Peggy

Save money and don’t heat up your kitchen–cook on the grill!

We have lots of rain and heat in Iowa this summer (it seems like a sauna). And, since I try to use the air conditioner as little as possible, the thought of adding to the heat by starting the oven doesn’t appeal. Grilling is my answer. It keeps the house cooler, I have fewer dishes to wash, and food from the grill tastes good.

Most of us think about grilling meat, poultry, or fish, but have you considered grilling fruits and vegetables? As long as you have the grill going, why not give it a try? Fruits and vegetables both taste sweeter when cooked on the grill, and there is a slight smoky flavor.

Here are a few hints:

  • Cut fruits and vegetables into sizes that won’t slip through a grill grate, purchase an inexpensive grill pan to protect foods, or make a homemade version with a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil fashioned with a turned-up edge (to prevent food from rolling off the grill or into the coals).
  • Cut vegetables into large, flat pieces of even thickness throughout each slice. You can cut them into smaller pieces after cooking.
  • Allow grill surface to get hot (but not flaming) before placing raw foods, including fruits and vegetables on it. Grilling time will vary with the size of the cut fruits and vegetables. Two to three minutes per side may be all that it takes to grill fruits and vegetables.
  • Brush fruits and vegetables lightly with cooking oil before placing them on the grill to enhance color and prevent sticking.  Or, marinate vegetables for a few minutes in an oil-based Italian-style dressing to introduce Italian seasoning.
  • To avoid cross contamination, use separate tongs, plates, or platters when grilling meats, hamburgers, hot dogs, poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables, or when toasting breads.
  • Here are a few fruits and vegetables to consider grilling: potato, squash, onion, eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, green pepper strips, thick-sliced or halved tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, pears, pineapple, and banana.

If you’d like more information, Julie Garden-Robinson, North Dakota State University, has a column in her Prairie Fare series on grilling fruits and vegetables you might like to read.

-pointers from Peggy

Buy fish on sale this month…try these easy, healthy recipes!

Grocery stores recognize Lent by putting various kinds of fish on sale. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times a week. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

I have been experimenting with cooking and grilling fish, trying to come up with something easy that has good flavor without adding breading and fat. I am trying to avoid the calories in breading, and I hate to pay the extra for someone else to add a little sauce.

Here’s a simple and tasty way to cook fish fillets:

  1. Turn on the oven; preheat to 400 degrees.
  2. Line a baking pan with foil (easy clean-up); lay the fillets in the pan.
  3. Drizzle with olive or canola oil, lemon or lime juice, salt/pepper or other seasonings of your choice.
  4. Bake about 20 minutes—the fish will flake when it is done. (It is okay to start with frozen fish, it just takes a little longer.)

Try our Pan Fried Tilapia with Orange Sauce or and or Tuna Melt Sandwiches.

-pointers by Peggy

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