How to have a healthy barbecue

Summer food - cooking on the barbecue

Barbecue food doesn't have to be bad for you. Learn how to have a healthy barbecue and how to make sure your summer foods are healthy foods.

Hot summers in the UK are rare – so when the sun does shine, we love to make the most of it. The mere hint of blue sky during the summer months means there’ll be a whiff of charcoal in the air if my back garden is anything to go by.

Although it’s important to make the most of the summer we get, if you’re a regular barbecuer, you might have noticed that many traditional barbecue foods aren’t always obvious companions to a heart-healthy diet – think sausages, burgers, salty marinades, salad dressings dripping in mayonnaise and buttery garlic bread.

It might feel healthier because you’re eating it in the fresh air, but barbecue food can add significant amounts of salt and saturated fat to your diet (over time, eating too much can raise your blood pressure and LDL or bad cholesterol levels).

Long, lingering afternoons of socialising which run into the evenings, can increase the temptation to keep picking at the food. And while you enjoy the lighter and hopefully warmer evenings, it can be difficult to resist drinking more than you normally would, too. But the good news is that eating healthy foods in the summer doesn’t mean ruling out all the barbecue fun. Making quick, tasty and healthy choices to enjoy with your friends and family is easy to do, come rain or shine.

Meat and marinades

Choosing the best cuts of meat to barbecue can seem tricky as it’s a different kind of cooking compared with in the kitchen. Using leaner cuts can greatly reduce your saturated fat intake. Buying loin of pork instead of ribs, or lean steak rather than a fattier cut, are healthier choices – and don’t forget to remove skin from chicken.

"Buy loin of pork instead of ribs, or lean steak rather than a fattier cut"

Kilo for kilo (or pound for pound), it might be more expensive to buy leaner meat, so you need to think differently about how you use it.

Instead of cooking whole pieces of meat, slice or cube it (your butcher can do this for you) so that it can be threaded onto skewers along with vegetables such as peppers, onions and courgettes. The meat cooks quicker as it is in smaller pieces and the extra vegetables will also help you towards your 5-a-day.

While it’s true that the marbling of fat in meat can help it to remain moist once cooked, this isn’t the only way to keep it tender. To compensate for having less moisture due to a lower fat content, you can tenderise meat. One of the ways you can do this is by marinating. The acids in the marinade, like lemon juice or vinegar, will break down the muscle fibres or tough bits of meat to make it softer and easier to eat. 

Even though there is less fat in lean meat, don’t feel that you have to add extra oil to stop it from sticking. Just keep an eye on the meat when you put it on the barbecue and don’t forget to keep turning it.

Marinading matters

Summer kebab - marinading mattersShop-bought rubs and marinades for meat are often low in fat but can be high in added salt, so check nutritional information carefully and look out for green traffic light labels. The same applies if you are buying meat that is already dressed in a sauce or marinade.

It’s really simple to add your own flavours to your meals in a healthy way. A marinade of lemon, rosemary or sage and a little bit of oil is simple but tasty. If you marinate your meat overnight or just for a couple of hours, it’s amazing how much difference it can make. Or use fresh herbs such as parsley, coriander or basil along with some citrus fruit such as orange, lemon or lime (grated zest and juice) once the meat has cooked.

In the event you have more time, you can experiment with making your own pastes, which you can use to marinate meat. Use flavourings such as onion, garlic, lemon, lime and fresh herbs mixed with a little rapeseed or sunflower oil. Alternatively, you could create a spice paste that packs a punch, using smoked paprika, cumin, dried chilli, curry powder or cayenne pepper.

Barbecued bangers and burgers

Opting for lean cuts of meat is the best way to keep the saturated fat and salt content of your barbecue down, but the odd sausage or burger is also likely to creep in, so it’s useful to know how to make a healthier choice. As with all packaged foods, it’s important to check nutritional information so that you can make sure you are opting for those that are lowest in salt and saturated fat. There can be a wide variation between different products within the same category.

Pork sausages must contain at least 42% porkLegislation sets the rules on meat content of the humble sausage, along with other meat products such as beef burgers, meat pies and puddings. A pork sausage, for example, will need to contain at least 42 per cent pork meat.

However, the definition of meat means that it does not only include the lean meat that we would buy in the shops, but also fat (up to 30 per cent) and connective tissue (up to 25 per cent), which is the gristle and tissue that holds the muscle to the bone.

Included on the ingredients list could be water (if this contributes to more than 5 per cent of the product) along with rusk, potato starch or breadcrumbs to fill out the mix, seasonings and flavourings including salt, and possibly additions such as preservatives and colourings.

The difference between premium and budget sausages is likely to be that the more expensive product will have a shorter list of ingredients, a higher meat content and therefore a chunkier texture to the sausage, along with the use of ‘natural’ casings (skin) for the sausages themselves. But don’t be fooled into thinking this means they will be healthier – a recent survey found that both premium and economy sausages contained very similar amounts of salt. So it’s still important to look at nutritional information as well as quality claims.

See our recipe for barbecued mackerel with spices.

Veg and salads

"Try grilling slices of Mediterranean-style vegetables, such as aubergine, peppers, red onion and courgette"

Don’t let the balance of your meals fall by the wayside as soon as the barbecue is lit. Beware of traditional salad accompaniments and dressings, which can be laden with fat and salt, and remember that things like potato salad and coleslaw contain lots of mayonnaise.

So, although the vegetable content in side salads is good, think carefully about the dressings that you splash on them. When it’s hot, it can be tastier to have salad with a lighter dressing – like the crunchy coleslaw with our seared salmon kebabs recipe.

Another thing to try is mixing some low-fat yoghurt into mayonnaise to lighten it up, but keeping the creamy flavour. As well as traditional salad leaves, you can also try grilling slices of Mediterranean-style vegetables, such as aubergine, peppers, red onion and courgette, on the barbecue. Serve as they are or drizzle with a little bit of vinaigrette dressing or with some tzatziki (yoghurt, garlic and cucumber dip) on the side.

Alcohol and alternatives

Summer drink - alcohol and alternatives It can be easy to overdo it on the alcohol, especially if you are at home where you may not stick to the measures that pubs or restaurants use. It is recommended that women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day and men should not drink more than 3-4 units per day.

To put that into context, a pint of beer that is 5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) is almost three units and a standard (175ml) glass of wine (13 per cent ABV) is just over two units. Because we tend not to use such precise measures at home, it’s useful to know that a bottle of wine (13 per cent ABV) would be nearly 10 units.

If you are drinking alcohol, think about alternating your alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones. You can also try diluting them – make wine into a spritzer or go for a half-and-half shandy if you are drinking beer, lager or cider.

Or why not try an alcohol-free alternative, which is more refreshing, especially on a hot day? Water or sugar-free fizzy drinks are the obvious choice, but if you want to give your drinks a special twist then try adding elderflower cordial and a squeeze of fresh lime juice to sparkling water. Or try mixing combinations of pure fruit juice with some water and lots of ice for a refreshing drink.

Take our alcohol quiz.

More useful information