BBQ food and your baby – What you NEED to know

Featured image for the article: "BBQ Food and your baby - What you NEED to know". Pictured is a family gathered around the barbecue, including parents, grandparents, and young baby.

BBQ season is pretty much here! With Father’s Day coming up, and long weekends as we start summer holidays, you may be wondering if offering your baby food off the BBQ is ok, if it can be served safely to them, and what types of foods to give them.

Barbecuing can be a great way to add a new smoky flavour to the variety you already offer to your baby and toddler, and can help to expand their palette through exposure. It’s also easy and convenient for most of us as you can prep the ingredients beforehand and throw it on the BBQ outside – leaving little to no mess in the kitchen (who doesn’t love that!). And if you’re like my family, you can also leave it to Dad to handle, while Mom gets a break from real cooking for the night.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, ‘cause I know it will come up (and don’t forget you can listen to the full episode on this topic here, too).

BBQ and Cancer Risk:

Is barbecuing safe for kids from a cancer perspective? Some of you may be like “What??”. But others might be like, “Yeah, I hear that barbecuing can be carcinogenic!”.

For the record, I hate the fearful messages that circulate, and the over-worry about the potential minute bad things out there with every food…but here’s what you technically need to know about it. 

There are chemicals called Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are formed when meat like beef, pork, fish, or poultry, are cooked using high-temperature methods directly over an open flame. So obviously, this would mean barbecuing is the perfect example of this. HCAs are formed in a chemical reaction at high temperatures, and PAHs are formed in a chemical reaction when fat and juices from meat drip onto the open flame, which then causes more flames and smoke. This is said to then cause a reaction where the PAHs from the flame and smoke stick, if you will, to the surface of the meat (1).

The formation of HCAs and PAHs varies by meat type, cooking method, and “doneness” level (ie. rare, medium, or well-done).

Studies have shown that exposure to HCAs and PAHs can cause cancer in rodents who were fed a diet supplemented with HCAs. These rodents developed tumors of the breast, colon, liver, skin, lung, prostate, and other organs. Those that were fed PAHs also developed cancers, including leukemia and tumors of the gastrointestinal tract and lungs. BUT, the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were VERY high—equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet. So let’s be honest…unless you’re only eating BBQ food over an open flame most days of the week – I honestly wouldn’t worry at all.

As with anything and everything nutrition, there are “bad” sides to almost everything you look at. Little things like this, when they’re done once or twice, are not going to be what causes harm, picky eating, obesity, or cancer. It’s the frequent dependence on them that truly matters.

My Top 5 Tips for Keeping your Baby Safe this BBQ Season:

With all of that being said, we know that babies can’t handle as much of any chemical or toxin as adults can, because of their smaller bodies. So, here are the best ways that you can be extra sure you’re doing everything you can to keep your baby safe while still serving them food from the BBQ.

  1. Marinate meat, poultry, and fish before cooking. There has been research that has shown that marinating these foods can prevent the formation of cancer-causing chemicals during the cooking process.
  2. Continuously turning meat over while it’s on a high heat source can also substantially reduce HCA formation. This is compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source, without flipping it often. (I think most of us already do this, but I’m not a BBQ expert)
  3. Barbecue slowly and keep the food away from the hot coals so that flames are less likely to engulf the food, which prevents charring. The charred parts are again, maybe the parts that are hard for babies and toddlers to eat anyway, so you’ll most likely be removing those and offering them the inside pieces of meat.
  4. When barbecuing, choose lean cuts of meat, poultry, and seafood over higher-fat meats. Also, trim off any visible fat which you wouldn’t want to give to your baby or toddler anyway, as it’s hard to chew. I typically recommend cooking with fat when doing so over the stove, in the oven etc, as it keeps meat juicy for your baby, but then I remove it, like the skin of a chicken breast for example, before serving it because it’s a choking hazard. However, when barbecuing, you could just remove the fat from the beginning to reduce the amount of smoke created from burning fat. Stick with offering juicy pieces of meat, such as a chicken thigh or drumstick, for babies since the added moisture will make it easier for your baby to squish and chew. But, as they’ve had some experience with that, you can always offer some juicier pieces of chicken breast as well. Of course, a burger that’s cooked through for babies is also great (they need to be well-done because babies are more susceptible to food borne illnesses). 
  5. Check out my blog post on how to serve meat to babies and toddlers for all the info on serving meat – including how to safely serve various types of meat to prevent choking. And remember, babies don’t need teeth to eat meat! I also have a bonus podcast episode on simple food play ideas with meat, if you have a toddler that’s still learning to like meat. 

Simple BBQ Ideas that aren’t Meat:

While we love to grill meat at my house, all of the risks I outlined above when it comes to carcinogens and barbecuing, are in relation to meat, only. The effects of barbecuing aren’t the same for plant based food, so what a wonderful opportunity to introduce your baby to the world of barbecuing this way! If you like to BBQ everyday, why not switch it up and try some of these ideas on the BBQ to limit the amount of barbecued meat being eaten, add some variety, and try some new flavours for these standard meal options? 

Here’s a list of some of my favourite things to make on the BBQ:

  • Grilled vegetables, like: zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, and potatoes. Just like roasting, barbecuing vegetables brings out a sweeter flavour from the caramelization process.
  • Veggie burgers – a great meat alternative for a barbecued meal.
  • Fruit slices, like pineapple, peaches, or bananas – so tasty! Many people add sugar to allow the fruit to caramelize even more on the outside, which tastes AMAZING, but I’d omit that for babies, since it will still taste good without it, and we’d prefer to limit added sugar under the age of 2. 
  • Try out a grilled fruit or veggie kabob. This is a fun way to serve these foods to your toddler that are typically always presented in the same way, and it can be more interesting to them, making them want to actually eat it. 
  • Corn on the cob is another toddler favorite. You can offer this to your baby as well, I’d say by around 8-9 months after they’ve had some practice with solids and self-feeding. Just be sure to cut the cob in thirds so that the piece is lighter for them to be able to hold and eat off of.
  • Take something like a pizza, flatbread, or a quesadilla and throw it on the BBQ! Especially if they rejected it before, this will provide a different flavour that you might find they enjoy.

That’s it for tips for this BBQ season – please enjoy the time with your family and try not to stress about the risk factors! Everything has risk, we do our best to manage it, and by following the tips I outlined above, I truly would not worry!

Feeding Toddlers online course by My Little Eater™

References:
  1. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet

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Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two and lover of all things related to baby and toddler feeding!

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