Tips foster healthy, safe grilling season

HANCOCK COUNTY — The warm weather has finally arrived. For many, the sunshine is an invitation to fire up the grill. Whether you are grilling for your family or a large group, you must consider important factors of food safety and nutrition. In order enjoy your summer, here are some tips for a healthy and safe grilling season.

As you plan meals for the week or a menu for an upcoming cookout, be sure to purchase ground meat or poultry no more than a day or two before you plan to grill it. Otherwise, you will need to freeze the meat; for larger cuts of meat, such as steaks, it is recommended to grill or freeze within four days of purchase.

While shopping, pick up your meat or poultry right before making your way to the checkout line. This will decrease the amount of time your food goes unrefrigerated. Meat and poultry should not go unrefrigerated for more than two hours, or one hour in weather above 90 degrees.

Also, try avoid storing your meat in the trunk for the ride home; the temperature of the trunk is too hot, and bacteria can grow rapidly. You may want to pack a cooler for your meat if you have other stops to make before traveling home.

When you arrive home or to your grilling destination, refrigerate your meat and poultry immediately. Always store raw meat and poultry below other foods in your cold storage to prevent possible cross contamination.

It is important to completely thaw meat and poultry in the refrigerator or in the microwave just prior to cooking. It is not recommended to thaw on the counter; this gives bacteria the time and environment to grow. Whenever possible, wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food; unwashed hands are a primary cause of foodborne illness.

Once you have thawed your meat and you are ready to grill, make sure you clean up any juice spills immediately so a raw product does not get on a cooked product or on foods that won’t be cooked.

To keep everything clean and safe during preparation, make sure you have plenty of utensils and platters available. To avoid cross contamination, do not use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat or poultry.

Cooking time and temperature is key to grilling meat and poultry safely. First, heat the grill to kill microorganisms before placing meat or poultry on it.

Meat and poultry prepared on the grill often browns quickly on the outside, but using a thermometer is a must to ensure food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature. According to the USDA, safe minimum internal temperatures are as follows:

whole poultry, breasts and ground poultry: 165 degrees

ground meats: 160 degrees

beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops): 145 degrees and allow to rest at least three minutes.

If you’re preparing a variety of meats and poultry at the same time, try using a different thermometer for each or wash your thermometer between the different meats. Clean your thermometer before and after use with hot soapy water and hot rinse water.

As you treat yourself to traditional grilled foods this summer, try making them as healthy as possible. Purchase leaner meat to reduce fat.

Cheese is a popular topping; select a lower-fat and -sodium cheese such as Swiss or Mozzarella. Garnish burgers with lots of vegetables such as lettuce, onion, mushrooms, and even avocados, or enhance your steak with grilled vegetables on top. Serve whole-grain buns or eat the burger without the bun to save calories.

Provide side dishes that are healthy choices so people will not fill up on the higher-fat burgers. As the meal portion of your gathering winds down, do not forget to address the leftover food, store properly or discard any food that has been left out for more than two hours or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees. When in doubt, throw it out.

Enjoy the summer and enjoy grilled foods, but remember to handle the meat safely and balance the higher-fat foods with servings of vegetables, grains and fruits.

I cannot think of a better way to spend a holiday weekend or warm summer evening than a cookout with friends and family.

Happy grilling.