Before you head to that cookout, brush up on what foods to avoid—and the important moves you need to make to stay safe.
If you find yourself pregnant during warmer months, there is probably a backyard barbecue (or three!) on the calendar. But before you fire up that grill or fill up your plate, remember that some of your favorite dishes may be risky for moms-to-be. "Certain foods can harbor bacteria that are particularly dangerous during pregnancy," explains Mary Lynn, D.O., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois.
But that doesn't mean that you have to pass up on the fun and watch wistfully as your friends chow down. With the right precautions, you can enjoy yourself while still staying safe. Read on to learn what foods to watch out for, plus the smart precautions that can protect your pregnancy.
1. Hot Dogs and Deli Meats
The risk factor: These processed meats can harbor Listeria, a type of bacteria that can cause a rare but dangerous infection. "Listeriosis has been associated with miscarriages, stillborn births and birth defects," warns Lynn.
Play it safe: Since heat can destroy the bacteria, cook hot dogs and deli meats to at least 165°F. If you don't have a thermometer on hand, make sure that your hot dog is cooked through. "When you slice it open, it should be steaming," explains Lynn. Steer clear of that tray of cooked frankfurters, since you can't guarantee that they were heated to the proper temperature (or zap it in the microwave first).
The risk factor: Even if you always order your burgers medium-rare, now's the time to be wary of undercooked patties. "Pregnancy weakens your immune system, which can leave you more vulnerable to food poisoning," explains Lynn. Besides Listeria, raw meat can also contain illness-causing E. coli, Staphylococcus, Salmonella and Camplobacter. "Getting sick can bring on dehydration, which may lead to contractions," says Lynn.
Play it safe: Request a well-done burger, and use a thermometer to make sure the temperature reaches 160°F—the color isn't a reliable measure of its doneness. And double-check that the chef places finished burgers onto a clean plate, so there's no cross-contamination.
3. Barbecue Chicken
The risk factor: As with burgers, eating undercooked chicken may set the stage for a risky bout of food poisoning.
Play it safe: Use a meat thermometer to ensure that your chicken reaches 165°F on the grill. Also keep in mind that early research published in the journal Nutrition suggests that eating barbecued meat may lead to a lower birth weight. Experts explain that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)—potentially harmful compounds created when meat is cooked at extremely high temperatures, such as over fire—may affect fetal development.
While this study is still preliminary and more research needs to be done, if you're concerned, you may want to take an extra step and pre-cook your chicken before putting it on the grill. This minimizes the barbecue time and PAH formation, while still imparting that delicious smoky flavor.
4. Potato and Pasta Salads
The risk factor: If left out for too long, these delicious sides can become contaminated with bacteria like Listeria.
Play it safe: Unless you're sure that these prepared foods were handled properly and not left out for more than two hours (or one hour if the temperature is more than 90°F), take a pass on these dishes.
The risk factor: These wispy plants grow in a moist, damp environment, which doubles as an ideal breeding ground for Listeria and other harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli.
Play it safe: Because of potential exposure to these bacteria, the FDA warns that pregnant women should avoid all kinds of sprouts, including bean and alfalfa. So skip using this veggie in salads or as a burger topping.
6. Homemade Ice Cream
The risk factor: Some custard-based ice creams are made with raw eggs, which may be contaminated with Salmonella.
Play it safe: Chilly temperatures don't wipe out bacteria, so ask for the ingredient list before helping yourself to a scoop. And check that dollop of freshly whipped cream is made with pasteurized whipped cream from the supermarket, not raw cream from a local dairy or farmer's market. What about the stuff in canisters or containers? That whipped topping is safe.