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June 10, 2019

Get Fired Up – Safe and Healthy Grilling Practices


Written by: Nadeen Risi, MS, RDN, LDN


The inaugural period of grilling typically starts on Memorial Day and runs through Labor Day, providing endless possibilities for meals. Nowadays, grilling can be as easy as pushing an ignition switch and can deliver balanced meals for the entire summer, while simultaneously keeping your house cooler. Being mindful of what kinds of foods you put onto your grill can help you be successful with your nutrition goals. Planning is key to having a balanced barbecue: make sure to have side dishes that contain fruits and vegetables and choose lean proteins.

However, grilling does come with some food safety concerns. The last thing any person wants to deal with during their summertime fun is any food-borne illness or food poisoning. But there are also chemicals that can be created while grilling that can potentially be harmful to you and your family. When you put meat or fish on high temperatures over an open flame two substances can be created: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are formed when your proteins are charred or when the grease starts burning/smoking. A few practices can help create a healthy, and safe, grilled protein:

  1. Remove visible fat/Choose lean meats. This limits the amount of fat dripping onto hot surfaces and smoking.
  2. Use a marinade. Marinating the protein before grilling creates a barrier and limits the chances of charring. It can also add moisture and flavor into your leaner proteins. Make sure to drain the marinade off the protein to limit smoking as well.
  3. Precook your protein. Precooking protein and finishing it on the grill cuts the cooking time over the open flame, limiting charring.
  4. Use smaller cuts. Less surface area reduces cooking time, resulting in less exposure to open flame.
  5. Avoid grill hot spots. Those are the hottest areas on a grill that can cook the fat so quickly that is drips onto the surface, creating smoke. Most times hot spots do not cook your protein evenly, either.

These harmful substances can be avoided if you remain mindful of the grill and never leave it unattended. Keep in mind, HCAs and PAHs are not created when fruits and vegetables get charred. Throwing some zucchini, eggplant or pineapple can be great additions to your barbecue without the concern of harmful chemicals.

Other food safety concerns?

Grilling does not come without other food safety concerns. As mentioned before, the matter of food-borne illnesses or food poisoning can arise from bacteria such as salmonella or listeria. Cross-contamination, when bacteria from one source or unclean item touches ready-to-eat foods or clean surfaces that food is going onto, is the number one cause of food poisoning. This can spread the bacteria quickly and can cause anyone to be sick. What can you do to limit the likelihood of cross-contamination?:

  • Start with a clean grill. After cooking is complete and the grill has cooled down, clean the grill plates and remove charred food debris.
  • Wash your hands before, during, and after preparation of raw meats. Use hot, soapy water.
  • Clean utensils and surfaces after use. Washing surfaces and utensils after preparation can limit cross-contamination, especially if they were used with raw proteins.
  • Use separate plates for uncooked and cooked foods.
  • Do not reuse marinades that were on raw proteins. Boil extra marinades before using it on cooked meats or make extra to use for your cooked proteins.
  • Cook proteins to the appropriate temperature. Use the table below to test your proteins and make sure they are cooked properly.
  • Chill foods after you are done. Refrigerate foods within two hours of cooking or within one hour if the temperature where the food will sit is greater than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Summertime is a great opportunity to cook large batches of food while enjoying the weather outdoors. Plan ahead to create balanced meals to include a variety of colors and flavors. Come see an Avance Care registered dietitian for recipe ideas for the grill this coming summer.

Nadeen Risi is the registered dietitian for the Apex and Cary Avance Care locations. She recently has been focusing her attention to training for the national fitness competition, CG Games, with her team. When she is not training or working, she is spending her time with her husband Steven and their three dogs, Harley, Gunner, and Diesel. She also enjoys traveling to new places and trying as many new foods and restaurants as she can.

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