Cooking food on an outdoor grill is nearly as much a part of the summer as music festivals and hanging out at the pool. It's even better when the cook pays as much attention to nutrition and food safety as to the heat of the grill.
"It's important to take some basic precautions when preparing food outdoors, and to make sure that you're eating a well-rounded meal, not just gorging on bratwursts," says dietitian Amy Gelfand, MS, RD, LDN (who loves bratwurst, by the way).
She and a colleague offer these tips for making cookouts this weekend — and anytime — safe, nutritious and even more delicious.
1. Don't overcook meats.
Darkness is a great background for fireworks, but it may be harmful when it comes to the color of barbecued meat. If cooked at high heat for a long amount of time, grilled meat creates an unhealthy compound called heterocyclic amine that may increase the risk of cancer.
One way around this problem simply is to cut off any blackened parts of the meat on your plate. Though some heterocyclic amines will remain, at least you're not eating the pieces that contain the highest concentration of them.
"In addition, marinating your meats will decrease the amount of heterocyclic amines that meat will produce," Gelfand says. "Use whatever kind of marinade you want. The meat will be healthier, and more tender and better-tasting, too."
2. Limit the amount of meat you eat.
As a general rule, it's a good idea not to eat a lot of meat, even if it isn't prepared on a grill.
Studies show that too much red meat — which refers to beef, pork and lamb — may cause colon cancer.
"In general, people tend to eat too much meat," says dietitian Heather Rasmussen, PhD.
The American Institute of Cancer Research suggests people eat no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week. A serving size is 3 ounces per serving, or the size of a deck of cards. "If you stick to that amount, it will help you avoid any harmful effects," Rasmussen says.
3. Grill more veggies — and fruits.
Instead of piling on the meats, Rasmussen suggests grilling more vegetables, like corn, squash, sweet potatoes, asparagus, peppers and portabello mushrooms. Veggies don't have the same chemical reaction to high heat that meat does.
For protein, fish, chicken, tofu, tempeh (made from soy beans) and saitan (made from wheat gluten) are excellent alternatives to red meat.
Gelfand is also enthusiastic about grilled fruit. "I recommend pineapple, peaches and watermelon," she says. "They're really delicious. The grilling makes fruits a little sweeter and softer, and it creates those nice grill marks. It's a great way to add color, flavor and nutrients to your barbecue."
In fact, a healthy balance of food would be at least 50 percent produce. "My plate method is half fruits and veggies, a quarter meats, and a quarter carbs," Gelfand says.
For maximum yumminess, she recommends shopping for produce at your local farmer's market right before your cookout.
"Food tastes so much better if it's harvested when it's supposed to be and you're eating it two or three days later," she explains. Plus, you can support local farmers, talk to them to find out if the food is organic or not, and lessen the environmental impact of eating food shipped from a distance.
Just make sure you grill all your fruits and vegetables before throwing meat on the grill, or at least keep them in carefully separated sides of the grill throughout the cookout. Since meat cooks longer, the extended heat probably will kill any potentially harmful bacteria on it. If the microbes rub off on vegetables first, though, they still could be there when the food comes off the flame.
For the same reason, use separate tongs or flippers for the meat and fruits/vegetables. "Keeping your utensils separate is something I goof up once and a while," Gelfand admits.
The grilling makes fruits a little sweeter and softer, and it creates those nice grill marks. It's a great way to add color, flavor and nutrients to your barbecue.
4. Keep hydrated — deliciously.
To protect against dehydration and possibly even heatstroke while spending a lot of time outdoors in hot weather, Gelfand advocates drinking 10 glasses of water a day, even more than the eight glasses generally recommended.
"You should always have a water bottle with you, preferably a reusable bottle, so it reminds you to drink," she says.
To avoid water weariness without resorting to sugary drinks (or even worse, diet soda), add natural flavors.
Gelfand loves making fruit water. For example, she'll crush up some watermelon or strawberries and leave them in a pitcher water in the fridge overnight so the fruit can infuse its sweetness into the water. Fresh mint leaves, the sweet herb stevia, or basil and cucumber also make for refreshing summer drinks.
"The nice thing about all these ideas is they give you more flavors and more nutrition while still letting you enjoy a good old-fashioned cookout," Gelfand says. "It's a great way to celebrate summer."