5 Tips for Healthier Cookouts

Learn how to give your cookouts a healthy — and delicious — makeover

Healthy Living
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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 or burgers," says registered dietitian Hannah Manella, MS, RD, CSO. She offers these tips for making your cookouts safe, healthy 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 grilled meat. 

Heterocyclic amines (HCA) are unhealthy chemical compounds that can form when animal proteins (beef, pork, fish, poultry) are cooked using high-temp methods that result in blackening. Similarly, smoked meats can form polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

“HCAs and PAHs are suggested to be linked to cancer,” Manella says. “This was initially found in animal studies. Although the evidence is not as strong in humans, it’s not a bad idea to be cautious about how much charring is on your meats and how often you consume smoked meats." 

Tips to limit HCA/PAH formation in cooked meats:

  • Avoid direct exposure to open flame (e.g., place aluminum foil or a pan above the flame)
  • Continuously turn meats 
  • Remove charred portions of meat
  • Refrain from making gravy from meat drippings

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. 

Various health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association, have released guidelines on the importance of limiting your intake of high-fat, red and processed meats. Studies have shown that too much red meat — which refers to beef, pork and lamb — may be linked to higher risk of cancer.

“I typically recommend limiting red meat to less than three small 6-ounce servings — about the size of the palm of your hand — per week,” Manella says. “Instead, prioritize leaner options such as skinless chicken or turkey, and seafood that contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids.”

Tofu, tempeh (made from soy beans) and seitan (made from wheat gluten) are also excellent protein-rich alternatives to grilled red meat.

3. Grill more vegetables — and fruits.

Instead of piling meats on the grill, Manella suggests grilling more vegetables, like, zucchini, asparagus, peppers and mushrooms.

"I always encourage pairing animal proteins with high amounts of fiber-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Manella says. "My perfect plate is half vegetables and/or fruits, one quarter meats and one quarter carbs."

Vegetables don't have the same chemical reaction to high heat that meat does. Fruits and vegetables are also naturally packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Choose locally grown options; because they are picked and available at their peak ripeness, they have higher quantity of nutrients when you eat them.

“A great way to add a variety of vegetables and fruits to the meal is to prepare grilled chicken or salmon kabobs,” Manella says. “My favorite combination is chicken breast with potatoes (I use canned), pineapple, bell peppers, onion, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms.”

Grilled fruit can also be a great after-dinner treat. “I love placing peaches directly on the grill to slightly char, then I top the fruit with a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt,” Manella says. “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 cookout.”

4. Stay hydrated — deliciously.

When you’re cooking or dining outdoors in hot weather, it’s important to protect against dehydration.

Just remember: Thirst is not the best indicator that you need to grab a drink. “If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated,” Manella explains. So keep a large water bottle nearby to sip from, and refill the bottle as needed. Keep in mind that you may need to drink more fluids if you’re sweating more than usual.

If you don’t particularly like water, consider adding fresh lemons, limes or oranges to your water. Research has found that citrus flavored beverages tend to quench our thirst better than plain water.

“Electrolyte beverages can also be good options,” Manella says. “I often recommend Nuun Sport and Drip Drop because they are lower in sugar and high in essential electrolytes.”

5. Make sure your food is safe.

These guidelines will help ensure that your food is safe to eat:

Grill all of your fruits and vegetables before throwing meat, poultry or fish on the grill, or at least keep them on carefully separated sides of the grill throughout the cookout. For the same reason, use separate tongs or spatulas for the meat and fruits/vegetables. 

  • Per the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, cook food to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill tends to brown quickly on the outside, so use a food thermometer to ensure the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature. NEVER partially grill meat or poultry and finish cooking later. 
    • Cook whole cuts of raw beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, chops, fillets and roasts) to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F (63°C). 
    • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C).
    • Cook all poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).
  • Keep meat and poultry refrigerated until ready to use; once you take it out of the refrigerator, place it on the grill immediately.
  • Perishable items that were in the refrigerator before (or will go in after cooking) should not be left out in the heat for prolonged periods of time. More than two hours can increase the risk of bacterial contamination and potential food poisoning. 
  • Refrigerate any leftovers promptly in shallow containers. Discard any food left out for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature outside is above 90°F/32°C).

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