Summertime is grilling time. Cookouts smell so good and, for many people, nothing beats the taste. So how can we enjoy a party around the grill and make it a healthy—as well as a fun—experience?
The effects of open fire and high heat on hamburgers, hot dogs, and other meats that many people love to cook, can present some health risks.
When we expose meat, chicken, or fish to high temperatures, HCA’s (heterocyclic amines) form. They are believed to increase the risk of several different types of cancer—and the more HCA’s we consume, the higher the health risk. The same is true for PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that form when fat drippings burn.
Eating food that was exposed to high temperatures or was burned and blackened—which can happen with deep frying, pan frying, or grilling—can be stressful for many body organs and the immune system because of their severe inflammatory properties.
A Healthy and Fun Grilling Time
By now you are thinking we are real killjoys! But here are ten tips for enjoying a healthier cookout without missing any of the fun.
- For charcoal grills, avoid toxic lighter fluids. Instead, crumple some paper, put a few thin pieces of wood on top—and then start the fire. If you allow lots of space and air between the materials, it will burn better because fire needs lots of oxygen. Once the wood begins burning, put the charcoal on top and wait until it is glowing red. Now start the grilling. It is best to start the grill at least ½ hour before the party begins.
- Use a little extra light olive oil and a brush to clean the grill surface before you start the fire. This way you remove food remnants and the grill is less sticky.
- Do not allow too much smoke to form. Wait to do your grilling until the coals are hot and there is just a little smoke.
- Pre-cook all the meats you want to serve. This reduces the cooking time on the grill and avoids blackening the meat.
- Limit the amount of meat you eat by adding veggies, fish, and/or shrimp. Most people like fresh salads, coleslaw with a light dressing, or—one of our favorites—a red beet salad. And how about pickled onions, cucumbers, or peppers? For us, grilling is not the same without a tasty cucumber salad with lots of fresh dill and red onions. Make sure those items are on the table before you start cooking, not after. In case you already have started the grill, what we recommend is putting a few pieces of hearty bread, like rye or sourdough, on it and serving half-slices with a little butter together with the salads. This way, everybody ends up eating much less meat. Last, but not least, never forget the guacamole.
- Marinate all the foods, including the meat and veggies, for a couple of hours and keep everything in the refrigerator before starting the party. You can make a simple and tasty marinade with a little olive oil and maybe balsamic vinegar, herbs, salt, pepper, turmeric, onion, and garlic. That will add lots of taste. It also is a healthy alternative because marinating reduces the formation of HCA’s. Make sure you first cut up the vegetables. Some of the most commonly enjoyed are onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and zucchini.
- Provide skewers. After marinating, combine the vegetables on the skewers with pieces of meat. Last time we grilled, I put the skewers in a steamer beforehand and everybody was very happy about the taste and tenderness of the meat.
- Whatever you have on the grill, turn it over as frequently as possible to avoid burning and cut off any blackened parts before eating.
- Beware of baked potatoes! They contain lots of calories even without the sour cream or butter you probably like to add. They have no fiber and raise blood sugar like almost no other food, making them one of the big bad boys of the weight gain department.
- Keep a special metal plate you can buy at hardware stores on one side of the grill to hold more veggies—this especially is useful for pre-sautéed onions. Those onions are unbeatable on top of a steak or brat! The good news is that HCA’s do not form on vegetables—but please still keep them away from the flames and smoke, and be careful not to burn them.
We hope your summer is filled with fun and tasty outdoor eating with your family and friends!
- Explore proper hydration and a few thoughts on summer nutrition: “Summertime Fitness: Part II“
- “How to Hydrate Properly on Warm Summer Workout Days“
Updated June 23, 2017
Updated June 29, 2016
Updated June 23, 2013
Posted July 4, 2011