Grilling is one of the oldest methods of cooking and socializing, dating back to our cave-dwelling ancestors. We’ve advanced from the “meat on stick” mentality, but the food-handling habits of some backyard chefs still need evolution.

For example, your risk of getting food poisoning spikes during the summer, thanks to the draw of eating outdoors and the fact that bacteria grows quickly in hot weather. Yet only 23 percent of home cooks use a food thermometer to check whether their meat is cooked enough to kill such bacteria and ensure food safety.

Another pitfall: toting poorly wrapped raw meat in a cooler, which can allow its juices to migrate onto other items.

Thankfully, easy precautions can mit­igate or eliminate food safety risks. Here’s how to prep, cook, and serve so that your meal is as safe as it is satisfying:

1. Pick the Right Protein

Chef Howie Velie, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, recommends lean and tender cuts, which are easiest to heat evenly—filet mignon, strip steak, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, lamb chops, and fish such as salmon, mackerel, and scallops.

2. Prep the Grill

Clean both sides of the grates while they’re warm with a grill brush or other tool. Skip chemical cleansers, which can leave residues and create fumes.

Then use tongs to drag a paper towel moistened with salt water over the grates to remove any broken bristles or residual chunks of char.  

3. Control the Flame

Heavily charred meat can expose you to the potentially cancer-causing compounds heterocyclic amines, which form when amino acids and chemicals in muscle come in contact with high heat. And other unhealthy compounds, such as polycyclic aro­matic hydrocarbons, can form when fat drips off meat into the flame.

Although occasional exposure is probably okay, it makes sense to avoid those compounds when you can. Trimming visible fat and coating meat with marinade before grilling it can help.  

4. Check Temps Before Serving

Use a meat thermometer to make sure the meat has reached a sufficient internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria. That’s at least 145° F for steaks, roasts, chops, and fish; 160° F for ground beef or pork, and 165° F for poultry. (Find out how to tell when a grilled steak is done.)

5. Dish It Up Promptly

For the sake of food safety, serve hot items right away and keep cold dishes such as pasta or potato salad in a refrigerator or cooler until everybody’s ready to dig in. They can spoil in as little as an hour when sitting in the sun. (You can organize your refrigerator for maximum food freshness.)

6. Clean and Clear

Never use the marinade you used for raw meat as a sauce for the finished dish unless you boil it first. Also, don’t place cooked food on a plate that held raw items. 

If your cookout will take place at a local park or beach or other location away from home, find out whether there’s a source of clean water and soap to wash dishes and hands. If there isn't, the FDA recommends bringing along a jug of water, soap, and paper towels.