As far as Aussie pastimes go, firing up the barbie is up there with footy, thongs and a day at the beach. And the reason we love BBQs so much – other than watching our men yield a pair of tongs – is because they’re a chance to kick back with friends in the great outdoors and eat with our fingers. But you may have noticed that the humble backyard BBQ featuring singed snags, incinerated slabs of meat and charcoal chops has been replaced with prime cuts of meat, sensational seafood and brightly coloured salad – and it’s a hell of a lot healthier for us too.

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As far as Aussie pastimes go, firing up the barbie is up there with footy, thongs and a day at the beach. And the reason we love BBQs so much – other than watching our men yield a pair of tongs – is because they’re a chance to kick back with friends in the great outdoors and eat with our fingers. But you may have noticed that the humble backyard BBQ featuring singed snags, incinerated slabs of meat and charcoal chops has been replaced with prime cuts of meat, sensational seafood and brightly coloured salad – and it’s a hell of a lot healthier for us too.

The range and features of BBQs has ignited the summer banquet trend. Forget the old brick-design, barbies now feature more extras than a top-of-the-line Ferrari. This has allowed a greater range of food to be barbecued – meaning more healthy options. “Side burners allow boiling or stir-frying of foods while meat is simultaneously cooking, enabling a whole meal to be prepared on the one apparatus,” says dietitian Bianca Neaves (www.wesweight.com.au). “Barbecuing itself can be a relatively healthy way to cook meals but as with any cooking method it depends on what ingredients you use and how much oil you add.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, is the fact that meat is the staple icon of the Aussie BBQ. However, we are now making it healthier. “Although cuts of meats with marbled fat throughout it provide very juicy steaks when barbecued, save these for special occasions as the fat is saturated which is harmful to your health in large quantities,” says Neaves. Instead, you should opt for lean cuts of meat – or white meat or seafood.

While some people say there’s nothing better than the taste of charred meat, it’s actually bad for you. “Barbecuing at high heats for long periods of time creates cancer-causing compounds called polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and can also trigger substances in the muscle proteins of meat, chicken and fish to produce chemicals known as HCAs (Hetero-Cyclic Amines) especially if well done. These are formed in the charred parts of the food and in the smoke from the dripping juices and fat,’’ says Neaves.

To avoid burning your food, avoid fast barbecuing – and forgetting about the meat by getting distracted by the latest neighbourhood gossip. “It’s likely to cause charring on the outside of the meat before the inside completely cooks through,” says Neaves. “Slow barbecuing is better over a more moderate heat but excessively long cooking times should be avoided. The time the food will require cooking depends greatly on what you are cooking. Seafood and smaller pieces of meat will cook a lot faster than a whole chicken or roast meat will.”

Accredited Practicing Dietitian and lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at Deakin University, Sonia Brockington, suggests using herbs, spices, sauces and marinades to add flavour – which won’t add significant calories.

“Choose chutney, grain mustard, garlic, ginger, vinegars (balsamic, red wine, cider or malt) or lemon juice in dressings or marinades. And ensure you add fresh herbs such as basil, coriander, mint, parsley and rocket to add different flavours as well as plenty of colour.” You can also limit the amount of meat you consume by filling the other half of your plate with salads and wholegrain foods, such as pasta, bread and rice. “In Australia we have a huge range of fresh fruit and vegetables that are also great for cooking on the barbecue such as potato, sweet potato, corn cobs, onion, capsicum or as an accompaniment in salads and side dishes,” Sonia says.