Summer is the perfect season to head outside, hit the beach and, of course, fire up the grill. And while I love an impromptu barbecue gathering, I also understand the value in crafting the perfect, healthy grilling menu that helps you stay on track with wellness goals while enjoying quality time with family and friends.
Unfortunately, many of the most beloved foods served at summer barbecues can actually come with a long list of side effects and may end up damaging your health in the long-run. But simply switching up what you’re tossing on the grill — and what you serve on the side — can provide a host of health benefits, allowing you to enjoy a guilt-free summer soiree.
So which foods should you be adding to your grocery list before your next cookout? I’ll start with the bad news first, and share the BBQ-friendly foods that should be avoided at all costs. Then I’ll share the items that you should definitely stock up on.
Avoid These Foods at Your Next Barbecue
1. Conventionally Raised Meats
In addition to the many ethical and environmental concerns associated with conventional meat, there are also plenty of health-related reasons to steer clear. Not only is it typically pumped full of antibiotics, but some animal studies suggest that it may disrupt hormones and alter cholesterol levels as well.
Opt for grass-fed, free-range or organic cuts of meat whenever possible, and always buy from a trusted supplier to ensure you’re getting the best possible quality.
2. Hot Dogs, Sausages and Other Processed Meats
Although hot dogs were once considered a summertime staple, you may want to consider passing on them this year. Processed meats like hot dogs, sausages and deli meats are high in harmful additives as well as sodium, fat and cholesterol. They also typically contain nitrites, which can be converted into carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines when exposed to high heat.
Hot dogs, sausages and other processed meats are best left out of your diet altogether. However, if you can’t imagine cutting out your favorite ballpark snack, look for varieties that are labeled “organic,” “all-meat” or “nitrite-free” as better alternatives.
3. Overly Charred Foods
Overdoing it on the grill doesn’t just change the color, texture and flavor of your food — it also alters the nutritional value of your meals. In fact, grilling at high temperatures can result in the formation of toxic, cancer-causing compounds like heterocyclic amines that actually negate any of the health-promoting properties of your meat.
For best results, keep cooking time to a minimum, flip often and remove foods from the grill before they get a chance to become overly charred.
4. Pre-prepared Side Salads
As tempting as it may be to grab a pre-packaged side salad from the grocery store when you’re short on time, they are often high in preservatives, conventional dairy products and other not-so-healthy ingredients that you’re better off without. Making your own side salad at home instead can put you in control of what’s in your food while allowing you to add a mix of your favorite nutritious ingredients.
Include a good variety of fruits, veggies and proteins to maximize the nutrient profile of your salad. Cobb salad, cucumber salad and Greek salad are just a few healthy and refreshing alternatives that are delicious and easy to prepare. (If you’re hosting your event outdoors, I’d also avoid salads with dairy as much as possible, as they may overheat and go rancid.)
Chips are not only loaded with calories, sodium and preservatives, but they’re also fried in hydrogenated oils and packed with artery-clogging trans fats. Besides taking a serious toll on your waistline, loading up on potato chips can also wreak havoc on heart health by shooting up blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Next time, skip the unhealthy chips and try making your own at home from your favorite veggies. Carrots, radishes, beets, Brussels sprouts and zucchini chips are all excellent options that can help you squeeze in a few extra servings of veggies while still enjoying a delicious savory snack.
Must-have BBQ Foods
Now, let’s take a look at the foods that should comprise the majority of your grilling menu.
This summer, make room on your grill to throw on a few veggies for a delicious side dish. Veggies pack a vitamin- and mineral-rich punch into a low-calorie offering, and they’re also rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and cravings-crushing fiber. Vegetables also typically have a high water content to keep you hydrated in the sweltering summer heat.
Asparagus, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, zucchini and eggplants are just a few tasty options that are super versatile and easy to enjoy on the grill. Try skewering them into colorful veggie kabobs, or slicing zucchini and eggplant length-wise for easy barbecuing. You can also try whipping up some summer sautéed veggies if you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing side dish that can be prepared indoors in advance.
2. Grass-fed Organic Protein
For many people, a barbecue menu isn’t complete without a grilled protein, and making the right protein choice can dictate the health quality of the rest of the meal.
Grass-fed beef, organic, free-range chicken and wild-caught salmon are all nutrient-dense sources of protein perfect for summer cookouts. But you don’t have to choose a meat — other nutritious, plant-based protein sources to add to your menu include tempeh and lentils. In fact, whole foods-based veggie burgers and portobello mushrooms are perfect on the grill, and great additions for those on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Picking healthy sources of protein can supply the amino acids that your body needs to maintain healthy skin, hair, muscles and bones. Upping your protein intake has also been shown to fight cravings and reduce levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for stimulating feelings of hunger.
Hydration is key during the hot summer months. And while it may be tempting to crack open a beer or an ice-cold soda when you’re feeling thirsty, kombucha is a much better option to help you beat the heat. Besides being super refreshing, this fermented beverage is also bursting with probiotics to give your gut health a hearty boost. Made up of trillions of bacterial cells, the gut microbiome has been shown to impact everything from mental health to immune function and beyond, so it’s important to keep it healthy.
You can easily brew your own kombucha at home using just a few ingredients that may already be in your pantry. You can even start experimenting with your own custom flavors by throwing in some lemon juice, ginger or blended berries.