Aerial view of diverse friends grilling barbecue outdoors. Freepik

Good food, good conversation and fellowship are good for the soul. A fun card game and infectious music doesn’t hurt either, which brings us to our favorite summertime staple, the cookout. 

Studies show 68 percent of Americans will grill or cookout during the Fourth of July holiday season. In spite of the heat wave, eating outside offers some COVID-19 protection and allows attendees more social distancing options. 

When cooking out, some automatically think of hot dogs, burgers, ribs and brisket. Many reach that conclusion because 150 million hotdogs, 700 pounds of chicken and 190 pounds of red meat and pork are typically consumed on the Fourth of July. 

That’s good eats, but healthier options are easily within reach. Whether you are cooking for a crowd or doing meal prep for the week, the grill is an asset and healthy dishes can be just as delicious. 

Grilling has many health benefits. When grilling and cooking meats, the fat literally melts and runs off the grill so there is less danger of consuming unwanted fat which translates into unwanted calories, and who wants that outcome? 

More minerals and vitamins are retained when grilling fruits and vegetables. Adding seasonings and fresh herbs also enhances flavors so that you don’t have to rely on butter or fattier oils. 

Now, many people grill using gas instead of charcoal, which increases cancer risks. Gas is cleaner and emits less smoke which is healthier for the cook and the attendees. 

One only has to peruse Instagram or Facebook Live to find amateur and professional chefs who offer a bevy of creative ways to use the grill for healthier meals during the July Fourth holiday. While many people have cut the cord, the Food Network, CLEO TV, and Cooking Channel dedicate weeks of programming to Juneteenth and Fourth of July celebratory meals. 

Many of the segments feature healthy meals using the grill, which lets off the heat outside instead of inside your home. Another benefit of grilling is turning the oven off and putting healthy foods on the grill, which keeps the house cool in case you need a respite from the hot temperatures outside and need to pop inside and cool off for a bit. 

In addition to healthy items, there are some important tips for pulling off a solid cookout The most important task is to prep ahead of time and keep it simple. Clean and chop food in advance and assemble on foil pans or grill pans. Toss with a healthy oil and seasoning, cover with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate until it’s time to grill.

Depending on the guest list, you may want to offer options to consider various dietary restrictions. Deconstructed kebabs are a good way to cook for a crowd and allow your guests to eat without reservation. You’re also not spending precious time customizing food for various palates but presenting food separately so folks can eat what they want and not waste food. 

Kebabs are cute, colorful and touted as healthy, but not necessarily easy to eat. Also, cooking kabobs can get dicey when cooking proteins and veggies together. Burnt veggies and raw chicken are not a good look. 

So, when grilling on skewers, make sure the items are the same size so that they cook evenly. Choose skewers that are easy to handle to ensure you continue to look as fabulous at the end of the “White Party” as you did at the beginning.  

Healthy foods aren’t the only important health topic when grilling. Preventing cross-contamination of foods and maintaining healthy food temperatures are also essential to keeping it healthy. Wear gloves when grilling, wash your hands after handling meats, fruits and vegetables and keep the hand sanitizer nearby. Cooking vegetables on a pan or foil packet avoids the debate about cross-contaminating veggies with animal products on the grill. 

Tomatoes, zucchini, squash, corn, onions and peppers are plentiful and in season. Grilling these items brings another layer of flavor whether you’re pairing with proteins or making a salad. 

It’s also an opportunity for your guests to customize their meal. Accompaniments such as tortillas, flat breads or salad greens give options for a DIY taco bar, pizza on demand or salad add another fun element to your gathering. 

One of the ways to take flavor profiles over the top when grilling is to use marinades, which can also be healthy. Making your own marinade is simple. Oil (olive, canola, grapeseed or avocado), acid (vinegar or citrus), salt, pepper and herbs (dried or fresh) are easy to purchase if you don’t already have it on hand. You can get ready-made marinades  too, but if you’re interested in controlling your ingredients and calories, then, make your own. 

Keep it clean and keep it classy. Use foil on your grill pans for vegetables or make packets to enclose veggies or seafood. It reduces the mess and the likelihood of an allergic reaction to seafood for those who may have shellfish allergies. The use of foil makes it an easy cleanup after the party. Make it convenient for your guests to clean up after themselves. Access to paper towels, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, clearly marked trash and recycling containers is also helpful.

Finally, make sure to keep condiments and food cold, especially salads containing mayonnaise and condiments that contain egg.  Do not leave them out for more than two hours because you could get salmonella poisoning or another food-borne illness. Put condiments, cheese, dressings,  salad greens and desserts with dairy in a cooler to avoid spoilage and to keep items fresh. Colored cups for the kiddos and adults can help them remember whose cup is whose and stop the spread of summer colds, flus and, of course, COVID-19. 

Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, sparkling or flat, lemonade, tea and an assortment of juices. These items can also be used as bar accompaniments and for  mocktails to keep it festive and safe. Make sure you have designated drivers on hand. What’s the point of having a fantastic cookout with healthy options if you can’t make it home safely? 

If you follow these tips and remember to have healthy options available for guests, your cookout can be happy and healthy in more ways than one.   

This article was written by Cindy Barnes-Thomas, a freelance writer based in the nation’s capital. Follow Cindy on Twitter @TheRealCinSai.