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Healthy Picnic Food Ideas to Bring to Your Summer Gathering

Aug. 3, 2021

Picnics are a great way to try new foods and really show off some of your best recipes. Why not add in these guilt-free, healthy options that never fail to delight even the pickiest eaters. Haylee Hannah, RD, dietitian from the UC Health Weight Loss Center, offers her helpful tips about healthy picnic foods for this summer


At the UC Health Weight Loss Center, we often hear comments from patients saying, “Once fall sports are over, eating healthy will be easier.” “If I could just get through the holiday season, I’ll be OK.” “Once it’s warm outside, I’ll be more motivated to eat better.” “There’s no way I can eat well on vacation, I’ll get back on track when summer is over.”  

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.

Every season of the year poses unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

There are many benefits to summertime when it comes to healthy living. Warm, sunny weather draws us outdoors with a variety of activities to keep us moving. It’s a great time of year to visit the many hiking trails around our city or spend a day cruising the bike trail. In terms of food, many vegetables and fruits are at their peak. Farmer's markets and farm stands are open and can turn grocery shopping from a mundane task to a fun summer experience.  

This summer, many have enjoyed the luxury of resuming a somewhat “normal” social life: graduation parties, summer barbecues, sporting events, visits to the park and maybe even a summer road trip. Being away from home feels glorious this year, but how do we maintain our healthy habits out of our usual environments, without our kitchens and where tempting treats abound? Is it even possible? The answer is – absolutely, yes!

Barbecues, Cookouts and Picnics: Health Hacks

Barbecues and cookouts are a fun way to relax and socialize this time of year, but also are commonly cited obstacles to healthy choices. If these are regular activities for you, consider swapping out some of the traditional food choices for healthy alternatives. Grilled chicken and fish are often leaner and lower in sodium than hot dogs or burgers. If you are trying to manage your weight, consider skipping the bun and going for kabobs, pairing protein with a variety of vegetables and fruit. Fresh-cut melons and berries are refreshing alternatives to higher-calorie sides like mac and cheese or potato salad. A colorful veggie tray with hummus or guacamole delivers more nutrients and fiber and is more filling than the usual chips and dip. Instead of cookies or ice cream, try lower sugar sweets, like frozen fruit bars with no added sugar or frozen Greek yogurt bars.  

Does staying healthy mean you can never enjoy the classic summertime favorites? Certainly not. All foods can fit into a healthy meal plan — even a hot dog, potato chips or even a real ice cream cone. The key is making wise decisions about how much and how often you eat those foods. Foods like these are great for an occasional treat; however, they may not fit as an everyday menu item when you are trying to manage your weight and optimize your health. Keeping track of your nutrition with a tool such as MyFitnessPal, Lose-it or Noom can help you learn how often you can enjoy these foods and still meet your health and weight management goals.

On the road or at picnics: Planning ahead for balanced nutrition

Whether trying to make better food choices on a road trip, or simply wanting to enjoy a meal al fresco in your favorite park, packing a picnic is a great idea. To make this process both healthy and simple, follow this strategy: assemble a bag for “pantry” items, a cooler for cold foods and beverages, and a bag for supplies. For your food, choose at least one to two items from each food group category for a well-balanced and satisfying meal.

Pantry Bag:

  • Grains: whole grain bread, whole grain crackers, dry whole grain cereal.
  • Protein: freeze-dried edamame or crunchy chickpeas. Low-sodium jerky, powdered peanut butter, protein bars (aim for double-digit grams of protein and single-digit grams of sugar), individual packs of tuna or chicken.
  • Fruits and veggies: raisins, fresh apples and bananas, canned veggies with easy-open tops.
  • Healthy fats: plain or lightly-salted nuts (individual packs if limiting calories), natural peanut butter.

Cooler:

  • Grains: pre-made grain salad made with orzo, bulger, quinoa or whole grain pasta.
  • Protein: Greek yogurts, string cheese, hardboiled eggs or pre-made egg salad or bean salad, ready-to-drink meal replacement shakes.
  • Fruits and veggies: pre-washed and cut vegetables, such as cucumbers, peppers and carrots, pre-washed fresh fruit such as grapes, blueberries and strawberries, jar of sugar-free jelly.
  • Healthy fats: individual packs of guacamole and hummus.
  • Beverages: bottled water, single-serve cartons of milk.

Supplies:

  • Paper plates, bowls and napkins.
  • Disposable forks, spoons and knives.
  • Wet wipes for hands and faces.
  • Hand sanitizer.
  • Food thermometer.
  • Picnic blanket — consider one with a waterproof underside in case you are picnicking on early morning dew or after recent rain.

A note about food safety and avoiding foodborne illness

Don’t let a foodborne illness ruin your good time this summer. Food safety is an important part of your planning and preparation process. Follow these tips for a safe and successful event:

  • Wash all produce thoroughly before packing, in case you don’t have access to a sink at your picnic location.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. The “danger zone” temperature range for microbial growth is between 40- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit. Cold foods should be kept below 40 degrees, and hot foods above 140 degrees.
    • Pack your cooler with plenty of ice. Avoid leaving food out of the cooler for long periods of time and limit the number of times the cooler is opened.
    • Cook meats thoroughly, reaching a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for most meats. If serving hot foods at a barbecue, consider bringing chafing pans to keep the food above the danger zone temperature range. Check food periodically throughout your event for safe temperatures. As a rule of thumb, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
  • Avoid cross-contamination of foods by using a designated serving utensil for each food item. Raw meats should be tightly packaged and stored in a separate cooler than produce.
  • Wash hands before and after eating or use wet wipes and hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

As we adapt to changes in the season, our routines and our revived social calendars, we can certainly face challenges with making healthy choices. However, summertime offers many benefits when it comes to staying active and eating well. Planning ahead and using some of the above strategies, we can enjoy all of the fun activities we want to do this summer and still maintain our healthy lifestyle.