Summer calls for day trips to the park or beach, which involve carefully packing the car with chairs, towels, sunscreen, hats, games and a perfect combination of snacks.
However, a long day away from home does not mean you have to resort to greasy pizza, salty chips and boiled hot dogs from local vendors. Instead, with a little preparation and these tips from Sharp HealthCare dietitians, you can pack a healthy and delicious picnic for the whole family.
Barbara Bauer, program manager of clinical nutrition at Sharp Coronado Hospital
“Instead of hamburgers and hot dogs, consider packed-to-go sandwiches, with vegetables and fruits as sides,” says Bauer. “Choosing foods that are prepared and packed in your picnic cooler allows all picnic-goers to enjoy the fun without being attached to the grill.”
Sandwiches can be a healthier alternative to grilled meats, especially if you use ingredients that are high in vitamins and minerals and lower in fat and calories. For side dishes, avoid mayonnaise-based items such as potato salad and macaroni salad, and instead consider three-bean salad and broccoli slaw in a vinaigrette, or carrot raisin salad with orange juice dressing.
“Consider trying alternatives to mayonnaise such as a sun-dried tomato and caper relish, artichoke relish or hummus for great flavor,” says Bauer.
Maintaining a safe food temperature for your picnic is important to prevent foodborne illness. Pack your cooler with refrigerated food and maintain its cold temperature with ice packs.
Angelea Bruce, certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Sharp HealthCare
“I have two picnic favorites: fruit salad and a whole-grain, Mediterranean-style tabbouleh,” shares Bruce. “These two things go with any variety of picnic foods and are easy to store in the cooler in a zippered plastic bag until ready to eat.”
She loves bringing along fruit salad, instead of sugary desserts, that include nothing more than fresh pineapple, strawberries and blueberries. “If I want to make it fancy, I'll squeeze the juice of a lime over the fruit and toss in a few sprigs of chopped mint or basil leaves,” she adds.
Fresh fruit has a high water content that can help keep you hydrated and energized during activities on warm summer days. Tabbouleh, on the other hand, is loaded with prebiotic fiber for gut health; complex carbohydrates for sustained energy; and a variety of anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting phytonutrients.
Don’t ever bring home picnic leftovers or leave out food for more than an hour in temperatures greater than 80° F (or two hours on cooler days). It is not worth the risk of ruining a great time with a foodborne illness later.
Kendra Busalacchi, registered dietitian with Sharp Grossmont Hospital
Easy fruit and veggie snacks
“For summer picnics, I like to bring a vegetable and a fruit dish,” says Busalacchi. “This way, I know there will be something to choose from that is loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and less fat than typical picnic food items.”
If possible, pack two coolers — one for the perishable food and one for drinks. The drink cooler is opened more often, making it more susceptible to heat exposure — and you don’t want your perishable food items to lose their cool.
Tracey Grant, registered dietitian and program manager with Sharp Rees-Stealy
“Fresh veggies with dips — usually mustard, balsamic vinegar or pesto — are my favorites,” says Grant. “I especially love to bring cucumbers, radishes, mini bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and carrots, because all of these hold up well during the journey.”
Bringing a variety of healthy items lends itself to snacking throughout the day instead of time preparing and eating only one meal. “I love to bring fresh fruits, such as apples and grapes, as well as things like olives, smoked salmon, deli turkey, goat cheese and other charcuterie-type foods,” adds Grant.
Smoked salmon is a convenient source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Goat cheese and deli turkey are other good sources of protein to help round out the meal and provide satiety, and olives provide a punch of flavor.
“I intentionally choose shelf-stable veggies and fruits for the bulk of my meal. And for the rest that does require refrigeration, I make sure it is chilled before I put it in my bag and always add a couple of ice packs. If I know that it will be many hours before I eat the food, I might even freeze the food to start — if it’s a freezer-friendly item, like cold cuts.”