Healthy Summer Picnics

We are in the height of summer grilling and picnic season. Warm summer evenings seem to call us outdoors at mealtime, and weekend barbecues and family picnics at the park are a wonderful way to spend time with family and friends. But picnic season doesn’t mean you need to abandon your healthy eating habits.

When preparing picnic baskets, plan to pack healthier food choices. For protein, healthier choices include low sodium lunch meats and cheeses or rotisserie chicken instead of fried chicken. Try veggie wraps and sandwiches with hummus, spicy buffalo rotisserie wraps or grilled chicken wraps with pesto. Choose whole wheat breads, wraps and pitas. Load those sandwiches with in-season veggies like lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Avoid heavy mayo-based sandwich spreads and salads. For side dishes, steer away from the traditional pasta-based salads and stick with vegetable salads such as carrot or beet salad or broccoli slaw. Try bean and corn salads or potato and pasta salads with yogurt, citrus or vinegar-based dressing. Increase the plant-based protein in your side dishes by adding black beans or chickpeas. Veggie sticks or whole wheat pita chips and hummus or yogurt dip like tzatziki are low calorie, nutrient-dense snack options.

For a sweet treat, take advantage of seasonal fruit. Mixed fruit salads, berry tarts, fruit kabobs, cherries and watermelon are refreshing and delicious options to refined sugar-filled cookies and brownies.

Keep your beverages refreshing and low calorie. The best way to quench your thirst is by drinking water. Homemade iced tea and lemonade are easy to make and allow you to control the sugar content.

Make sure you are practicing safe food handling techniques. Pre-wash all your fruits and vegetables. If bringing uncooked meats for grilling onsite, avoid cross contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry and seafood securely wrapped and separated from prepared/cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Keep cold picnic food in a tightly packed cooler with adequate ice to keep food below 40 degrees, and avoid unnecessary opening of the food cooler. Keep drinks in a separate cooler since that cooler will be opened frequently. Keep both coolers out of direct sunlight.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “keeping food at proper temperatures — indoor and out — is critical in preventing the growth of foodborne bacteria. The key is to never let your picnic food remain in the “Danger Zone” — between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F — for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90°F. This is when bacteria in food can multiply rapidly and lead to foodborne illness.”

 Barb Walsh, R.D., is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness. 

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