By this time of the year, you’ve probably been asked to enjoy a few meals outdoors with friends and family—or maybe you’ve been hosting those happy summer get-togethers yourself! Who doesn’t love a warm evening of casual dining with people whose company you truly enjoy?
Yet almost daily we’re barraged with disturbing stories in the news of produce and meat recalls triggered by evidence of bacterial contamination, or reminders that fresh or steamed foods are generally a healthier alternative than those cooked over high heat. And let’s not even discuss all the sugar-rich, heavy recipes featuring seasonal fruit that circulate during these hot months.
Summer can sometimes seem like a particularly difficult time to keep up the habit of eating well. But that’s no reason to politely decline every barbecue invitation, or resort to eating only packaged, “clean” (and that’s questionable) food out of fear.
1. Avoid char, a known carcinogen.
The blackened, fragile surfaces that appear when something is cooked over high heat is char. To some, it’s the taste of summer, but chemically, this ash solid is not good news. It carries a number of substances that have been linked to cancer.
Relax. You can grill while also minimizing charring if you…
• marinate foods thoroughly before grilling. Marinated or brined foods are far less likely to char than unprepared ones.
• control your heat. High heat produces char quickly. Cooking slowly, over low to medium heat, reduces char dramatically.
• consider gas instead of charcoal. Grilling with gas rather than charcoal or wood releases fewer of the chemicals that form char—and gas temperatures can be more easily controlled, too. If gas just doesn’t give you the smoky flavor that you love, wood is the next safest choice of fuel. Lighter fluid and self-lighting briquettes release an astonishing array of toxins that have no place at your party.
2. Keep separate foods separate.
This one simple guideline can help you avoid a wide range of microbes that have the potential to cause food poisoning or worse. Is the dish to be served warm or cold? raw or cooked? Be sure to keep it that way, consistently, until the meal begins. Likewise, be sure to keep utensils and cutting surfaces used with vegetables entirely separate from those used with meats.
Keeping meats and vegetables apart is important once the cooking starts, too. Often, these ingredients reach a perfect “doneness” at very different rates. Both to avoid bacteria from undercooking, and to prevent the unpleasant flavors and textures that can come with overcooking (and more char, too), it’s smart to load veggies and meats on separate skewers.
3. And speaking of meats…
Wings and ribs? Maybe, but think about going beyond those fatty standbys that are so often coated in rich, sugary sauces. What’s your favorite lean, organic meat or seafood on an ordinary day? Chances are, that same delicious cut will please your palate even more when cooked in the festive atmosphere of a backyard barbecue.
Wild-caught salmon, mahi mahi, or shrimp are stars on the grill. Mushrooms—especially thick slices of portabella, or even whole baby bellas—make a fantastic, filling meatless option.
Vegetables don’t have to be a ho-hum salad, either. Zucchini, for instance, takes on a whole new dimension when brushed with lemon and herbs and grilled cut-side down. Eggplant, beets, even melon and peaches take well to grilling. Feel free to experiment—you and your guests will enjoy the results!
Like so many other smart self-care decisions, healthy outdoor cooking is often simply a matter of preparing ahead. All you need to enjoy the company of friends for some delicious, casual dining—while also keeping yourself firmly on the track to luxurious wellness—is a little extra smart preparation. Fire up and dig in!