Today, I’m writing about one of my favourite subjects, barbecues!  Nigerians love barbecues!  For obvious reasons, I have to make this an article about healthier ways to enjoy barbecues, but that’s not a bad thing.

Real wood fire, leg of lamb, whole duck with improvised reflectors and drip tray

Improvised reflector barbecue

When I talk about barbecues, I mean all forms of outdoor, charcoal or wood-fire grilling .  Whether you build a fire on the beach and stick skewers in the sand or you buy a fancy black and chrome device for the price of a small vehicle, a barbecue is a barbecue and is as close to ‘natural’ as it is possible for cooking to get.



Bacon-wrapped rib-eye medallions on charcoal grill

Modern charcoal barbecue


A barbecue is by its very nature, healthy.  Open fire, primitive cooking takes us back to our roots.  One of the dieting fads popular today is the Paleo diet, based on eating foods that were available to our ancestors in the Palaeolithic Era (Early Stone Age).  This diet has been known to show good results in terms of weight-loss and better body composition, especially when adopted by people on a typical modern western diet of processed foods loaded with salt and refined sugars. Having said that, I’m not a fan of dieting, I prefer to advocate healthy sustainable lifestyle changes, I reviewed the Paleo diet as part of my series on modern diets HERE.

What to eat at a barbecue.

Grilled meat, fish and seafood;  Oh yes! Otherwise, why bother?

Charcoal fire, foil reflectors and time for cooking big pieces

Slow-grilled leg of lamb and chicken halves over charcoal

Grilling is a great healthy way to cook meat.  I favour long marinades, oil and/or wine/bourbon based but not too thick .  The problem with thick tomatoey coatings like store-bought ‘barbecue sauce’ is that the coating will burn quite quickly at relatively low temperatures giving you a bitter charred coating before the meat is adequately cooked.  In addition to the burnt taste and uncooked meat, burning converts certain ingredients to toxins, definitely not healthy!  Fans of store-bought ‘barbecue sauce’ should save it to pour on after grilling. (More on this later)  Cuts of meat should be chosen carefully for grilling ease, keep them thin unless you have plenty of time or they are to be served rare.  I’ve been asked several times what is the secret to a good barbecue, the answer is ‘timing’.  I will be grilling at least two hours (and sometimes up to 8 hours) before guests are expected, low heat and no rush makes for delicious well-done meat.

Grilled seabass, a delicious alternative to meat

Grilled fish. A Nigerian favourite

Fish and seafood are quick and easy, don’t need a marinade, just ensure they’re very fresh add a light brush with oil, infused if you like with garlic, pepper or other aromatics and they’re good to go.


Grilled vegetables;  I have a number of vegetarian friends and they love my barbecues, there are so many veggies that do well on a grill or directly on hot embers;  plantain, corn, pears, (not the sweet fruit or avocado but the small purple Nigerian pear, AKA ube, African pear or bush pear) sweet peppers(large pieces), tomatoes (large, halved) mushrooms, yam, sweet potatoes, courgettes (aka zucchini) squash and even pineapple.

Plantain, courgettes(AKA zucchini), mushrooms and bell peppers are a few of many vegetables that do well on the grill

Selection of grillable veggies

Bread; A healthy barbecue should have very little in the way of processed foods.  Some sort of bread is pretty standard at barbecues but there are so many choices to make even the bread a healthy option; wholemeal, low GI, ancient grain, rye, quinoa, nuts and seeds, the list is almost endless.

This watermelon salad made to The Executive Mama Put's recipe is a great hit at barbecues.

EMP recipe watermelon salad

Salads; crunchy, sweet, savoury, simple or complicated, always a big hit and so good for you. A good salad is a chance for the chef to show off some skill beyond flipping burgers and rotating sausages.


Sides, sauces and salsas;  My favourite side dish for filling in the gaps is spicy beans.  Cooked in a dutch oven or clay pot on the barbecue for a smoky flavour, it’s a great lubricator to bind the plantain or yam to some meat or to load on bread.  It can also be cooked indoors and/or in advance, still great. Other home-made classics to consider are; guacamole, hot and mild salsa, a fire-fighting-raita or other yoghurt/sour cream based sauce and a properly-hot-hot-sauce.  I mentioned starting the grilling long before guests arrive, another good tip is to have sides and ‘starters’ made earlier and sitting in the fridge ready to break out for early (non-Nigerian) guests.  I usually have seeded wholemeal pitta bread with (home-made of course) guacamole, buff-stuff (secret-recipe smoked salmon dip) quinoa chips, carrot & celery sticks.  Having nibbles and drinks ready removes any pressure to start taking meat off the grill before it’s ready.

Healthy Drinks

Drinking and barbecues go hand in hand.  Having said that, there are a number of refreshing options that are healthier than beer, wine and sugary soft drinks.

Water; tap, bottled, in a jug with slices of lime, lemon, orange and/or  cucumber, is a great natural alternative to soft drinks.

zobo (infusion of Hibiscus sabdariffa, AKA carcadè, roselle or sorrel,)

Chilled zobo drink

Spritzers; mix soda water or sparkling water with white or pink wine for a more refreshing, lower calorie alternative. Ice and lime slices work well and improve presentation.

Iced Infusions, iced tea, herbal teas and tisanes, made in advance and served in jugs with fruit slices is another great healthy option.  For a real Nigerian treat, try zobo (infusion of Hibiscus sabdariffa, AKA carcadè, roselle or sorrel,) brewed with ginger and/or lemon/lime, served on ice. It can also be added to a tot of rum for a great tall cocktail.


Healthy Dessert?

Keep it simple,  Watermelon, pineapple (can even be grilled on demand) and ice cream should cover everybody’s needs to be healthy or not.


What not to eat at a barbecue.

One big problem with barbecues is the tendency to wash the healthy food down with copious amounts of less healthy drinks.  Beer wine, soft-drinks loaded with sugar and artificial additives, even sugar-laden fruit juices can all detract from the benefits of barbecue food.  I’m not even going to try to suggest a ‘dry’ barbecue. (unless you’re driving)  A well matched beverage is an essential part of the enjoyment but enjoy in moderation or consider the alternatives above

The other hidden problem is the sugar hidden in sauces,  store-bought ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, etc. are often 20% or more sugar and a good dollop can turn a healthy bite into an unhealthy one.  This is why I advocate home-made salsas, dips and sauces, great taste, no added sugar!

Finally, rice. . .  Yes, yes, I know.  “A party without jollof is just a meeting” and so on and so forth but I will make the controversial statement that with all the good healthy food a barbecue offers, the carb-loading of jollof or fried rice is just an unnecessary indulgence.

Major Abs’ Takeaway

Live a little, eat drink and be merry for you only live once!