Everything You Need To Know About Summer Cookouts And Your Health

Cookouts and grilling are one of everyone's favorite summer activities, but they can pose some serious health issues. Read on to learn how to fire up the grill and enjoy the summer without the risks!

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I know that summer is really here when the sun stays up past its dreary, winter bedtime of six o’clock, when my windows open and let in fresh air for the first time in over a season, and when that nostalgic, heavy scent of a backyard grill fired up for dinner permeates the neighborhood.

Grilling can either be an opportunity to add robust flavor to a variety of foods, or it can be a bit of a problem for our health. Now that grilling season is officially upon us, there are a few key ground rules to establish before we whip off that grill cover and light it up.

Ground Rule #1: Minimize the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), two very scientific terms for compounds that have raised red flags as being potential carcinogens. They tend to form when meat is exposed to high heat for long periods of time.

  • Choose lean proteins, like fish, chicken breast, ground turkey breast, and 93% or leaner ground beef. Trim the visible fat and remove skin before cooking. Fish, seafood, tofu, and veggies have a much lower risk of PAH or HCA formation.
  • Marinate foods for grilling in vinegar or lemon juice, avoiding sugary or oily marinades.
  • Cook foods on the grill for the least amount of time necessary to cook them through safely. Avoid charred or blackened foods.

Ground Rule #2: Get savvy with food safety basics. Cookouts are rife with opportunities for cross-contamination and food spoilage, which can lead to foodborne illness.

  • Keep raw meat, fish, and poultry well-chilled until just before cooking. If any of it needs to thaw, set a reminder to transfer it from the freezer to the bottom shelf of your fridge the day before.
  • Never re-use cooking utensils or dishes that have touched raw meat, unless you have washed them thoroughly with soap and water in between.
  • Don’t leave cold salads and sides at room temperature for more than two hours, especially if they contain mayonnaise or dairy.

Ground Rule #3: Rethink the menu. Trust me, I like a good burger as much as the next person, but I think we can breathe some fresh and healthy new life into traditional cookout fare.

  • Mashing a ripe avocado into extra-lean ground turkey or chicken breast before cooking can keep it from drying out, so you get a leaner protein that still tastes good.
  • Fish wrapped in foil or grilled on a well-soaked cedar plank offers an alternative to heavier meat dishes.
  • You can even grill tofu and cauliflower!
  • Go heavy on the veggies. Grill up mixed veggie kebabs, ears of corn, and Portobello mushroom caps (they make great burger alternatives); throw together an easy salad with plenty of greens, berries, and a quick oil-and-vinegar dressing; and try lighter versions of mayonnaise-based salads.
  • Swap out staples like ketchup and mayo for salsa, mustard, hummus, or fresh avocado.
  • Use a big leaf of lettuce instead of a bun for your sandwiches.
  • Offer a beverage table of unsweetened iced tea and infused waters over soda and juice. If alcohol is a non-negotiable, stick to one or two, and really savor it.
  • Serve up fruit for dessert. Grilled peaches, pineapple rings, and watermelon wedges pair well with a dollop of lightly sweetened yogurt, and banana boats stuffed with just a few dark chocolate chips are great wrapped in foil and grilled until warm and melty.

Ground Rule #4: Go beyond the food. A cookout is a celebration, and although food is a big part of it, it’s far from the only one. Plan for some activities to keep everyone engaged and moving. We never go to a cookout without a Frisbee in tow, since it’s easily portable and great for large or small groups. Touch football, a baseball toss, hula-hooping, volleyball, and tag are other great options. If you’re not big into sports of any kind, gather the group for a walk or bike ride around the neighborhood or park.

Ground Rule #5: Relax! If most of your diet is full of nutrient-dense foods, one or two summer holiday cookouts will not fully derail your health goals. It’s important to prioritize your own well-being, but that means taking a deep breath and cutting yourself some slack now and then just as much as it means eating well and moving more most of the time. Your health journey is bigger than any one meal or social outing.

Now go out there and enjoy the summer, healthfully!

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