Fire up the grill; Memorial Day is right around the corner! We often celebrate this holiday with BBQs, a great way to enjoy the warm weather and socialize with friends and family. However, we don’t often think about the quality of the burgers and hot dogs that we throw on the grill. Simply improving the quality of the same foods you’re used to eating can have profoundly positive effects on your health without sacrificing taste or pleasure. Here are some examples on how to do this during your summer BBQs.
Go au naturel. Summer comes with bare skin and natural tones, so keep your foods in line with the theme. The best type of meat is sustainably raised — ideally hormone-free pasture-raised, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken. When animals are raised in their natural environment and are allowed to roam in pasture, feed off of grass, and soak up the sun, they are healthiest and therefore the most nutritious to consume. By consuming sustainably raised meats, you’ll also be avoiding the negative effects of excess hormones and antibiotics as well as the moral and environmental consequences of factory farming. This is one of the easiest and yet most important steps towards eating healthier and more sustainably without having to sacrifice flavor.
A word of caution: avoid processed meats, which are overloaded with salt and nitrates. Hot dogs and bratwurst are some of the worst offenders. If you do choose to indulge, look for nitrate-free hot dogs made from grass-fed beef.
For seafood, choose wild or at least organic farm-raised fish. Pick up fish like cod or wild Alaskan salmon, which are higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but stay away from fish with higher concentrations of mercury (like swordfish and tuna). For more information regarding the sustainability of your seafood choices, check your fish selection against the Blue Ocean Institute’s sustainable seafood guide.
Prepare for the heat. Choosing marinades and cooking methods carefully can go a long way in helping you to avoid nasty cancer-causing chemicals called HCAs. HCAs form when cooking meats at high temperatures over long periods of time. Try cooking meats to medium rare and removing any blackened or charred pieces (the worst parts for you). Starting the meat in the oven and finishing it on the grill or cooking smaller pieces cuts down cooking time, which in turn gives the HCAs less time to form. Trim off excess fat before grilling so it doesn’t drip onto the coals – this will keep the chemicals in the smoke away from your foods. With marinades, it is best to use a thin coating to avoid charring. Also, marinating meat in red wine or beer for six hours prior to grilling has been shown to substantially reduce the amount of HCAs. Using acidic marinades with lemon or apple cider vinegar can also be beneficial. Another way to reduce exposure to the HCAs is to avoid cooking directly on the coals and to use a rack or cedar plank. Wild salmon is especially tasty on a cedar plank.
Don’t forget to accessorize. Skip the chips and fries and go for the greens for your side dish. Make sure to complement any meal with lots of vegetables, especially green leafy ones like kale or spinach and preferably some raw ones — think salad — as well as cooked. Green leafy vegetables (and vegetables in general) provide your body with nutrients to counteract some of the harmful effects of the other foods at a BBQ. For added benefit, visit your farmers’ market this summer and choose locally grown and organic produce.
Instead of using traditional condiments loaded with corn syrup, sugar and preservatives, opt for ones using better ingredients. For example, some ketchups and BBQ sauces are now sweetened with agave nectar, and you can find mustards using apple cider vinegar and turmeric. Your best bet is to focus on seasoning your food with simple, good, quality ingredients — i.e. olive oils, good sea salts, and fresh herbs and spices such as garlic, rosemary, and thyme, all of which are health-promoting in their own right. Don’t forget to utilize better quality breads for your buns; those made from sprouted grains are great and are quickly becoming more popular.
Have fun! A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is the 80/20 rule. Aim to eat really healthfully 80% of the time so if you indulge in habits that may not be as healthy the other 20% of the time, the body will have the nutrients to better deal with it.
Food is the main aspect of nutrition, but being with friends and family and having a great time at a BBQ also contributes to overall good health. Be sure to enjoy your time off and reduce your stress as much as possible. Have a great Memorial Day weekend!