Six Ingredients for a Healthy Barbecue

Ah, barbecue season. It’s a great time to get together with friends and hang out in the backyard. Walking through neighborhoods, the unmistakable smell of a charcoal wafts past every so often — it’s a smell that means summer. There’s something quite primal about the idea of cooking outdoors over an open fire — just think, this is the way our ancestors have cooked for thousands upon thousands of years.

But like everything else, the modern barbecue has come to be part of the processed food feeding frenzy that’s every holistic nutritionist’s nightmare (or mine, anyway). Meats get slathered in sugary sauces and wrapped in cheap white bread products with processed deli salads and condiments on the side. Not exactly what our primal ancestors were dining on, huh?

Here are a few tips for helping your barbecue resemble a healthy meal. After all, it’s a good idea to take in good quality food that nourishes the body while you’re enjoying all that outdoor air.

Marinate Your Meats
– Marinating steak in beer or wine before cooking it dramatically reduces levels of carcinogenic compounds that are a byproduct of high temperature meat cookery, a study out of Portugal found last year. An olive oil, lemon juice and garlic marinade cut these chemicals in grilled chicken by 90 per cent. As well as tenderizing and adding delicious flavour, marinating makes for healthier meats.

Don’t Forget the Veggies
– While barbecuing usually mean meat, don’t forget the veggies. Veggies are delicious when done on the grill and they provide antioxidant phytonutrients that can cancel out free radicals caused by high temperature cooking. Grilled portabello mushrooms, sweet peppers, onions, zucchini are all delicious when served hot off the grill. Toss them in olive oil, chopped garlic, sea salt and a little lemon, and your mouth will be in heaven with all the fresh flavors.

Avoid the Sugar – Although marketed specifically for barbecuing, barbecue sauce is normally nothing more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavouring and MSG. In short, it’s all additives and no real food. How were we ever convinced in the first place that our meats needed a sugar coating just because they’re cooked on the grill? Instead, try homemade spice rubs and flavoured oils, or whip up a sauce in the food processor using your favourite herbs. Many herbs have natural antioxidant elements that help to fight cancer. Marinades (see #1) can also be used to baste meats or veggies as you cook (although make sure marinade that has touched raw meat gets well cooked before taking it off the grill).

Thoughtful Sides – Almost as important as the barbecued food is what you serve with it. But too often people fall back on pre-made deli salads that are high starches and bad fats. Make your own sides to make sure they’re up to your standards. Pasta salad is easy and can be done with gluten-free pasta to accommodate all guests. Potato salad can be made less starchy by subbing sweet potatoes. Plus, you can make it even more healthy by making your own mayonnaise. Still, nothing beats a tossed green salad with fresh veggies and a homemade dressing. That last bit is important because store-bought salad dressing is a source of trans fats, additives and flavourings that you don’t need. Plus, homemade dressing tastes so much better.

Condiments – Store-bought condiments usually fall in the same category as barbecue sauce — all additives, no actual food. Making your own homemade mayo and salad dressings are a breeze and taste much better than their store-bought counterparts. If you’re really adventurous, you could try fermenting some condiments to give your guests some additional vitamins, enzymes and probiotics. Fermented ketchup, sauerkraut or kimchi are all great on a burger. Or you could go less complicated with a nice homemade salsa, guacamole or pesto.

Do Vegetarian Guests (Or Self) a Favour – Too often, vegetarians show up at a barbecue with hyper-processed soy frankenfoods to put on the grill. The veggie burgers and dogs are pumped full of enough chemicals to keep them from tasting like total garbage, but that doesn’t mean that they’re good for you. Vegetarian proteins aren’t really conducive to grilling (legume and grain combinations, nuts and seeds, for instance) so why not have protein-rich sides while grilling up your veg? Sides like bean and rice salads, legume-rich hummus and quinoa pilafs are all high in protein and will suit a vegetarian just fine. Or, if you get really creative, you could make your own veggie burgers. Michael Smith of the Food Network does one that’s mushroom-based instead of soy-based and it’s pretty darn tasty.

Barbecues really are a lot of fun so why not make them healthy too? Follow these steps and you’ll leave your backyard party feeling healthy instead of worn down.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto. Doug specializes in private in-home holistic cooking lessons.