There’s so much to look forward to at summer gatherings — food, drinks, games, and sunshine.
But as enjoyable as it can be to fire up the grill and spend an afternoon with friends and family, outdoor parties can present health risks too.
To ensure you soak up every inch of the fun, here are 7 healthy tips for your next barbecue.
1. Watch what you eat
For most people, one of the best parts of a cookout is eating. However, during warmer temperatures, germs in any contaminated food can flourish, warns Hilary K. Whitham, PhD, epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
She suggests avoiding anything that contains meat or dairy that looks like it’s been sitting outside for a long time. “Perhaps it has dry edges or is lukewarm to touch,” Whitham told Healthline.
The best way to think of how food should be served is to keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold.
Specifically, cold foods should remain below the temperature of 40 degrees, and hot foods should remain above the temperature of 140 degrees.
“The area from 40 to 140 degrees is what we refer to as the danger zone,” said Whitham. “That’s the temperature range when bacteria can grow.”
To keep cold foods cold, she suggests serving them in small serving bowls and replenishing the bowls as needed so that the rest of the food can be kept in a refrigerator or cooler. Placing the serving dishes in a large bowl of ice is another way to keep the food safe.
2. That goes for any meat that will get grilled, too
“If food has been left out prior to cooking, such as a platter of chicken wings for the grill, even if it has been properly cooked and the bacteria has been killed, toxins from those bacteria that were growing when the chicken was left out of the fridge can remain,” said Whitham. “Those toxins can make people sick, so both proper chilling and proper cooking are necessary elements of food safety.”
If you’re grilling a lot of meat, bring it out in rounds, and keep the rest in the refrigerator until you throw it on the grill.
To keep grilled meat safe, Whitham recommends using a slow cooker. When cooking meat, keep the following in mind.
- Beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked at 145 degrees Fahrenheit (and rest for three to five minutes once the meat is off the grill or out of the oven).
- Ground beef (and eggs) should be cooked at 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Poultry and all leftovers should be cooked at 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using a food thermometer is an easy way to ensure food is safe.
“From my perspective, using a food thermometer provides peace of mind in terms of hosting an event… so I’m not worrying if I undercooked anything,” noted Whitham. “Eating things outside isn’t the primary driver of risk, it’s how it’s been prepared and what temperatures it’s kept at until you’re serving it and eating it.”
When it comes to preparing food, things to keep in mind include separating foods to avoid cross-contamination.
“That includes washing utensils and cutting boards after each use. Maybe even using a separate cutting board for cutting meats, and another for fruits and vegetables,” said Whitham.
She also suggests making one food at a time and in different areas of the kitchen.
“For example, if you’re making fruit salad and going to marinate a meat, make the fruit salad, clean it up then put it in the fridge,” Whitham explained. “Then make the marinade for the meat, marinate it, and put that in the fridge [on top of] a tray to catch any loose liquids that might escape the bag [and contaminate] anything else in the fridge.”
3. Wash your hands
At outdoor parties, people may be running in and out of the pool, playing games that require them to touch objects, and putting their hands in shared foods. While it’s important for the host to wash his or her hands properly when preparing and serving food, partygoers can protect themselves by washing their hands thoroughly.
It may sound obvious, but a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that most people do not wash their hands adequately, according to recommended handwashing steps defined by the CDC.
“This includes scrubbing your hands for about 20 seconds, which is about how long it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song. Brushing your nails softly into the opposite palm, rinsing and then drying [them] on a clean towel, not your jeans,” said Whitham.
Also, using hand sanitizer is another way to keep hands clean.
4. Wear sunscreen
Before you head out to a barbecue or outside party, apply sunscreen.
Although the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends wearing sunscreen every day of the year, when you know you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors, it’s especially important to put it on.
The ACS and the Food and Drug Administration suggest choosing a sunscreen with the following:
- Broad spectrum protection. This will ward off UVA and UVB rays. You want protection from both because while UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn and skin cancers, exposure to UVA rays also puts you at risk for developing skin cancer, as well as premature aging.
- Sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or higher. SPF refers to how much sunscreen can protect against UVB rays. To understand the significance of these numbers, the ACS breaks it down this way: SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 about 97 percent, SPF 50 about 98 percent, and SPF 100 about 99 percent.
- Water resistance. While no sunscreens are waterproof, those that indicate they are water resistant must state whether the protection lasts for 40 or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating. To best guard against sun exposure while in water or while sweating, reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.
5. Avoid getting overheated
The surest way to end your fun in the sun is to become overheated.
“A barbecue is a good place to think about heat exposure in a holistic sense because it’s a really great venue to get heat stroke and get sick,” Dr. Mark Morocco, professor of emergency medicine at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, told Healthline. “You have to be careful because you’re outside, you’re likely to be in the sun, and probably will be eating and drinking things that you’re not used to, including alcohol. All of those things are setups for heat exposure illnesses along the spectrum.”
Heat-related illnesses can range from mild cramps to heat exhaustion, which may present itself with heavy sweating, a rapid pulse, and headache. The most severe form of heat illness is heat stroke, which occurs if your body temperature rises to 104 F or higher. Heatstroke can cause serious damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, muscles, and can even lead to death, if left untreated.
To understand how heat affects the body, Morocco says to think of the body like a solar panel. As heat enters, it creates energy, and your body tries to get rid of that heat by evaporation or sweating. As you sweat, you circulate your blood a little faster, your heart rate goes up, and you breathe faster.
“As all that energy comes into you [and if you can’t evaporate it quickly], your temperature gets really high,” Morocco said. “When your temperature reaches about 108, if you don’t push that heat off, processes that give you energy [throughout your body] are affected. You want to stop this long before that happens.”
To know whether you or another partygoer are experiencing heat exhaustion or heatstroke, Morocco says pay attention to behavior.
“The reason it’s called heat stroke is because it affects the brain like a stroke would,” he explained. “If someone is at a barbecue, whether they’re playing frisbee or sitting in their chair, and all the sudden [he or she] shows signs of brain dysfunction, such as behaving oddly, passing out, having a seizure, having trouble getting up and walking or talking normally, or is vomiting and can’t keep water in, these are clues that something really bad is going on. That’s when you want to get that person out of the sun, cool them down, and get to the hospital where they can get aggressive measures of rehydration and observation.”
The best way to protect yourself from heat-related illnesses is to protect your body from the sun with not only sunscreen, but proper attire. Hats, sunglasses, and loose-fitting clothes have a lot of coverage and help to keep you cool.
Staying hydrated is also a great way to protect yourself, but how much water is enough?
Morocco says drink enough water so that you naturally urinate every two to three hours.
Take note that some conditions which require medication, such as those for the heart or various mental illnesses, can cause you to become overheated more easily.
Additionally, older people, children, and those who are obese are at increased risk of overheating.
“Extremes of age, weight, and health… [add to people’s] sensitivity in the environment — heat, sun, and cold too,” Morocco said.
And don’t forget that pets are vulnerable, too.
“Pets can get heat stroke and are more likely to get dehydrated and hot than we are because they don’t have a lot of skin to evaporate sweat on. They have to pant to get rid of heat,” Morocco said. “You might want to leave them behind at home in the cool with enough water to drink. It’s harder to keep track of how much water they are drinking at a barbeque.”
6. Limit alcohol
Alcohol and summer parties often go hand in hand. However, Dr. Robert Brewer, alcohol program lead at the CDC, explains that alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes you urinate more.
“People who consume alcohol in hot weather need to be aware that it could cause them to lose fluids, and that in turn could increase their chances of becoming dehydrated and potentially experiencing some other heat-related health problems,” Brewer said.
No matter the temperature, the CDC recommends that the alcohol limit for adult women is up to one drink a day, and for adult men, up to two drinks per day. However, Brewer says two out of three current adult drinkers do not consistently adhere to these guidelines.
He also points out that any alcohol consumption can increase risk of injuries and death.
“It’s well recognized that either drinking before or during swimming or boating can substantially increase risk of drowning, injuries, and death. If someone has been drinking even at moderate levels, there will be some increases in relation to injuries, particularly falls,” Brewer said.
Since alcohol is a depressant, he also points out that drinking could cause you to fall asleep in the sun, making you more prone to sunburn and sun overexposure.
Morocco agrees, adding that in addition to making you sleepy, alcohol can also make people act differently than they usually do.
7. Have fun
Barbecues and outdoor parties are a great way to enjoy the summer season, so cut loose and give yourself permission to have some fun in the sun. Get involved in that game of Frisbee or dare to try a different type of food.
Being aware of the potential dangers and knowing how to avoid them can help put your mind at ease and clear the way for you and your loved ones to celebrate the summer in style.