Labor Day is fast approaching, leaving backyard chefs wondering how they can shake up their go-to dishes. Steaks and burgers are tried and true, so our list of best foods to grill skews toward side dishes and accompaniments. Some can be grilled directly over high heat while others require a grill set up with a hot side and a cooler side. These aren’t the most obvious BBQ ideas, but they’re all worthy of a place in your summer party planning.
Sample Price: $0.59/lb
Cabbage is one of the cheapest green vegetables around, and it’s surprisingly good on the grill. Cut 1/4-inch slices held together by a bit of the core, then oil and season them lightly. Cook the cabbage “steaks” on the warm side of your grill until they’re tender, then char them quickly to caramelize their natural sugars. Serve beside your grilled meats or as a vegetarian option.
Naan (or Other Flatbreads)
Fresh naan come from a blistering hot tandoor oven and a few moments on your grill is all it takes to reproduce that fresh-baked texture and give the breads a pleasant hint of char. Give them a minute or two on the cool side of your grill, turning once, then shift them to the hot side for about 30 seconds. Brush the hot naan with melted butter if you wish, then serve them as a wrapper for kebabs or as a side with your grilled meats and salads.
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Sample Price: $2.68 ea.
Pineapple packs a serious wallop of flavor, and even a small one gives you a lot of fruit for the price. When it’s cut into ringlets, spears or skewer-friendly chunks, it grills in moments to smoky, caramelized lusciousness on the hot side of your grill. Serve it on kebabs, over cake or ice cream, or as a garnish on rich pork or Caribbean-influenced grilled fish.
Sample Price: $0.98/bunch
You might be tired of encountering this hipster staple at every turn, but it’s a real revelation if you’ve never tried your kale grilled. Plus, it’s one of the healthy foods that cost less than $1.
Use the large-leafed Tuscan variety — also called lacinato, black or dinosaur kale – torn into large pieces and tossed with olive oil and salt. They’ll be crisp, charred and startlingly, addictively snackable after 5 to 6 minutes of grilling over medium heat.
Sample Price: $1.91/lb.
The difference between ordinary and extraordinary meals often comes down to the fine details, and grilled lemons are exactly that kind of detail. Slice the lemons crosswise into halves or thick slices, then grill them cut-side down over a hot grill. The charred, smoky lemons take lemonade or summer cocktails to a whole different place, and their juice brings grilled fish or chicken to bold, vivid life.
Sample Price: $2.03/lb.
Cooked lettuce can seem a bit unnatural when you’re used to eating it in salads, but a little bit of high-temperature charring does wonders for romaine and other head lettuces. Rinse the head carefully, then cut it lengthwise into quarters and spray it lightly with oil. Grill over high heat just until the edges are charred, then serve it as a side dish or use it in a grilled Caesar salad. Pro tip: Grill the bread for your croutons and the lemons for your wedges, as well.
Sample Price: $1.81/lb.
Like other vegetables in the extended cabbage family, broccoli is surprisingly high in natural sugars. You won’t notice that when you eat it raw or steamed, but the difference is striking if you oil it and grill it over high heat until it’s charred. Serve the dark-edged, tender-crisp florets with any grilled meats or in your favorite broccoli salad. Even large florets are prone to falling through the grate so it’s best to use a vegetable grilling basket.
Sample Price: $1.95/12 oz.
Non-vegetarians tend to scorn tofu for its blandness and flabby texture, but you’re doing yourself — and the tofu — a disservice if you do. Tofu is a flavor sponge so marinating it beforehand or brushing it with your favorite sauce makes it a natural addition to your grilling repertoire. Start with the extra-firm variety and cut it into slabs. Grill it until the edges begin to crisp and the sauce caramelizes. You’ll become a tofu believer before you know it.
Sample Price: $0.99/lb
Sweet potatoes are a natural fit for the grill, where their sugars can caramelize freely and their soft flesh can absorb intriguingly smoky flavors. Slice them into rounds or long spears, oil and season them lightly, and cook them on the warm side of your grill until tender. Finish them at high heat until they’re browned and caramelized, then serve them beside pork or poultry.
Sample Price: $1.24/lb.
Most reasonably firm fruits work well on the grill and apples are a classic example. Cut them into wedges — dip them in diluted lemon juice to prevent browning if you cut them ahead of time. Then grill them until tender and caramelized over medium heat. Use tart apples with rich meats such as pork, or sweeter apples to serve over cake or ice cream as an easy, grilling-day dessert.
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Sample Price: $2.57/ea.
Cauliflower’s popularity is on the upswing thanks to its mild flavor and versatility. Even if you’re an enthusiast you might never have enjoyed it grilled, though. Lightly oil florets or thick-cut sliced “steaks” from the center of the vegetable and grill them over medium heat until they’re tender and lightly caramelized. Lightly steaming them first shortens your cooking time. Spicing the cauliflower or brushing it with barbecue sauce or plain yogurt makes it even tastier.
Sample Price: $1.94/lb
Cherry tomatoes are a popular kebab ingredient, but full-sized tomatoes also work well on the grill. Save the really ripe ones for salads — they’re too delicate for grilling — and use the grill to bring supermarket or sub-standard tomatoes to life instead. Halve or quarter them and grill them cut-side down until they char, then flip them for another couple of minutes until the skin blisters and blackens in spots. Serve them as a garnish with your steaks or chops, or use them as a salad ingredient.
Sample Price: $0.82/lb.
Carrots’ naturally sweet flavor and bright color make them a popular vegetable side dish and they’re an underrated option for the grill. Use the regular orange variety or multi-colored heirloom carrots from the farmer’s market.
Cut them lengthwise in halves or quarters — small ones can stay whole. Toss them with oil, herbs such as dill or fennel, or spices such as cumin and coriander, then grill over low heat until they’re tender. They go beautifully with most grilled meats, poultry and fish, or as an ingredient in your afternoon salads.
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Sample Price: $2.56/lb.
Backyard chefs are coming to realize that grilled fruit is a winner, whether it’s used as a garnish or as a suitably heat-and-flame-oriented dessert in itself. Grapes aren’t necessarily the first fruit to come to mind, but they’re perfect grill fodder in many ways: They’re already bite-sized, they’re perfect for skewers, and they have just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. Add them to your kebabs with meat, fish or poultry, include them in all-fruit dessert skewers, or sear them until they pop and serve them on pork or grilled chicken.
Sample Price: $0.68/lb.
Potatoes are already a popular side dish on barbecue weekends, but they usually don’t come up in discussions of what to grill. In truth, potatoes are great on the grate, and there are plenty of mouthwatering ways to prepare them.
Just season and oil them as you would if you were roasting them, and make the pieces large enough so they don’t fall through. Or pack them in heavy foil with butter and herbs and place the foil package at the back of your grill. Either way, cook them over moderate heat and serve them beside any of your grilled entrees.
Sample Price: $2.99/lb.
These tiny cabbages are another vegetable that wouldn’t make most lists of the best foods to grill, but we’ll happily give them a spot on ours. Like others in the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are high in natural sugars but they’re often obscured by other flavor compounds that can make them taste bitter or sulfur-y. When halved, oiled and grilled, the heat caramelizes the cut edges of their tiny leaves and brings out that natural sweetness. Brush them with balsamic vinegar for extra flavor and serve them with pride beside your entrees.
Sample Price: $2.97/lb.
Steaks, burgers and chops are all obvious choices for the grill, but sometimes meatballs get overlooked. They’re really ideal: What are they but miniature hamburgers? Line them up on skewers and grill them with your favorite sauces, either as an addition to other dishes or as an entree in their own right. They’re cheapest if you make your own, but they’re still inexpensive and convenient when you buy them pre-made.
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Sample Price: $2.98/12 oz.
Green beans are an unusual vegetable for grilling, but that’s what makes them such a great BBQ idea. Toss raw or lightly steamed beans in oil and season them, then cook over medium heat until they’re tender and lightly charred. They make a fine side dish just like that, but they’re even better as a salad with vinaigrette and bacon bits — or toasted almonds for the vegetarians.
Sample Price: $2.88/18 oz.
You can pair any number of side dishes with your favorite barbecue standards, and polenta is one of the more interesting to try. An Italian staple, it’s nothing more than cornmeal cooked to a stiff porridge and then left to cool. Cut it into rounds, triangles or squares, oil it well, and grill it at high temperature until it’s heated through and has nice grill marks. Serve it with grilled meats and vegetables, especially if you have a nice sauce to go with them. Store-bought polenta is already frugal, but it’s even cheaper if you make your own.
Sample Price: $0.57/lb.
Grilling bananas brings out their sweetness and intensifies their flavor, which is all the excuse you’ll need to slap a few on the grill. Slightly under-ripe bananas are firmest and the easiest to handle. Grill them sliced in half lengthwise to elevate traditional favorites like Bananas Foster or banana splits. You can also grill starchy plantains, the traditional accompaniment to many Latin and Caribbean dishes.
Sample Price: $1.97/10 oz.
It’s easy to come up with mains and side dishes to cook on the grill, but how about healthy snacks to nibble while the mains cook? That’s a perfect time for edamame. Toss the immature soybean pods with oil and grill them until the pods are lightly charred, then transfer them to a serving bowl and sprinkle them with salt and lime juice.
Sample Price: $1.29/lb.
Spaghetti squash is usually baked in the oven, but cooking it on the grill instead gives it a smoky, interesting flavor that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and pulp, then grill it cut-side down over medium heat until it’s tender and lightly charred. Rake out the flesh with a fork and use it as a noodle substitute at your barbecue or in dinners through the rest of the week. The mild-tasting flesh is equally good with Western-style pasta sauce or in Asian noodle dishes.
Sample Price: $1.24/lb.
Ripe strawberries are remarkably delicate and perishable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them on the grill. For a memorable appetizer or garnish, sear whole or halved berries over high heat until they begin to sizzle and caramelize, then drizzle them with balsamic vinegar. Alternatively, add them to grilled fruit skewers for their color and sweet juiciness.
Sample Price: $5.74/lb.
If you’re going to put bacon on your burgers and dogs anyway, why not prepare it on the grill? It comes out perfectly crisp and non-greasy when you do it right. Stretch your strips across the grill or use a grilling basket.
Cook the bacon on the cool side of your grill until most of the fat renders, then transfer it briefly to the hot side to crisp right up. It’s best to put a pan underneath the bacon to catch all that fat as it drips — otherwise cleaning up your grill before the next barbecue will be a bit of a chore.
Sample Price: $3.24/lb.
Mushrooms are tasty no matter how you cook them, but grilling makes them extra-special. Not only does it add a pleasant hint of smokiness, but the dry heat of the grill helps concentrate and intensify the mushrooms’ own natural flavor. Grill whole mushrooms at high temperature on skewers or in a basket, or put the caps of larger mushrooms such as portabellos directly on the grill. Oil them lightly to prevent them from sticking and brush them with a sauce or glaze if desired when they’re nearly done.
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Price Disclaimer: Prices were gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March 2017 consumer prices release, and from a Walmart and a Whole Foods in Indianapolis on April 7 and 8, 2017. Prices were accurate at the time they were retrieved; yours will vary seasonally and by location.