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Published on May 28, 2019

For healthy summer barbecues: ditch the hotdogsFor healthy summer barbecues: ditch the hotdogs

Celebrating the summer season with an outdoor barbecue is an American tradition, but these picnics, while festive, can be loaded with potential dangers like food poisoning, overeating, and lots of salt, fat and chemicals.

The key to a healthy summer feast is all about choices and moderation, said Courtney Shea, clinical nutrition manager for Cape Cod Hospital. Take, for example, that summer favorite: hot dogs.

“There’s really not a healthy hot dog out there,” she said. “They’re pretty highly processed. They have a lot of additives and preservatives that you really want to avoid.

“It doesn’t mean that we have to totally eliminate these foods from our diets. Just don’t have three hot dogs this weekend and three more next weekend.”

Shea made the following suggestions for a healthier barbecue:


  • Avoid processed meats, such as hotdogs and other sausages, such as linguica and kielbasa, as they are full of fat, salt and preservatives.
  • Replace fattier cuts of meat with lighter selections. Skinless chicken breasts, fish and shrimp go great on the grill.
  • Use a meat thermometer to ensure that the interior temperature is high enough to kill disease-causing bacteria. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides a food safety temperature chart online at
  • Grill food in batches to meet demand, rather than all at once, so that it doesn’t sit around in the heat and open air.

Salads and snacks

  • Replace mayonnaise-based dishes, such as potato salad, with fruit salads or whole-grain salads.
  • Substitute potato chips with chips and crackers made with whole grains or beans.
  • Try salsa or guacamole in place of cream-based dips, such as onion dip.
  • For a better snacking option, munch on sliced raw veggies.


  • Instead of a heavy cake or cupcake covered with sugary frosting, enjoy a slice of angel food cake topped with blueberries and strawberries. And it’s red, white and blue!
  • Fruit goes great on the grill: peaches, melon, pineapple.
  • A slice of watermelon makes a healthy dessert.

Alcoholic drinks

  • If making a mixed drink, try using flavored seltzer to reduce sugar.
  • Beer is usually packed with calories, so limit consumption.
  • Drink beer, wine and cocktails in moderation, and alternate with water to avoid dehydration.

Food safety

  • Keep foods that you’d normally refrigerate cold in a cooler or tub of ice.
  • Cover prepared foods with netting or lids to keep germ-carrying bugs out.

On overindulging

  • “It’s essentially like a buffet. People often eat more than you would normally eat. Try to remove yourself from the food area. Play a yard game,” said Shea.
  • If you’re unsure if there will be healthy option to eat at the party, bring one yourself.

In addition to Shea’s advice, both the American Institute for Cancer Research and the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute caution that grilling meats, including chicken and fish, can result in the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), amino acids strongly linked to cancers of the colon and stomach, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also found to make mutagenic changes in DNA. To reduce this risk, they recommend:

  • Grill smaller portions.
  • Flip the meat often.
  • Grill at lower heat.
  • Marinate the meat before grilling.
  • Cut off charred portions and don’t eat drippings.
  • Use leaner cuts, as fats play a role in the formation of both HCAs and PAHs.
  • Partially cook meat in a microwave before finishing it on the grill.

The American Institute for Cancer Research also recommends eating smaller portions and following the New American Plate guidelines of dividing your plate so that at least two-thirds consists of plant-based foods (vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains) and the remaining third or less is meat.

Finally, when you clean your grill before and after cooking, be aware that loose metal bristles from grill brushes have been known to cause serious injuries when they become stuck to food and accidentally eaten. The federal Centers for Disease Control warns that loose bristles can lodge anywhere along the digestive tract from mouth on down. The CDC recommends inspecting your grill for bristles before using it or, better yet, using a utensil other than a wire brush to clean the grill.