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healthy picnic food

For many of us, packing a picnic basket and heading off to the beach, soccer field, or park is a wonderful rite of summer. But traditional picnic foods like fried chicken and potato salad can wreak havoc on your diet. The good news is that with a little tweaking, you can enjoy a picnic without compromising your waistline. Here are some healthy picnic food ideas sure to delight everyone.

Few things scream summer more than eating outside, especially with plenty of friends and a checkered blanket. The trickiest part is finding snacks and drinks that travel well, so we did the work for you. Celebrate National Picnic Month in style with these 21 healthy, portable recipes.

American Dietetic Association spokesperson Kerry Neville suggests finding healthier alternatives or limiting portions of these familiar picnic foods and beverages:

  • Mayonnaise-based salads, like potato salad and coleslaw.
  • Alcoholic beverages.
  • Fried chicken.
  • Hamburgers and hot dogs.
  • Brownies, cookies, and other desserts.

Instead, aim for a picnic basket that contains a bounty of colorful fruits and vegetables; lean meat, fish or chicken; and a whole-grain salad or two.

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 1: Use Nature’s Bounty

Summer picnics occur at the height of the fresh fruit and vegetable season. And the more colorful produce you add to your menu, the healthier the meal.

“Take advantage of the bounty of the season and fill your picnic basket with luscious summer produce like peaches, berries, cherries, watermelon, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, peas, and fresh herbs,” says Ellie Krieger, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite show.

That doesn’t have to mean elaborate preparations. It’s easy to create healthy and delicious picnic foods with fruits and vegetables.

“Try using broccoli slaw instead of coleslaw, toss in some shredded carrots, and toss with a light, low-fat poppy seed or yogurt dressing for a great salad that will be still be crunchy and delicious and lower in calories than the typical coleslaw,” suggests Neville.

Go for a healthier and more flavorful twist on pasta or potato salads by substituting colorful veggies for some or all of the starchy ingredients. Chopped veggie salads are another great picnic food idea. Making them ahead of time not only makes picnic day less stressful, it makes for better-tasting salads.

“Vegetable salads (excluding lettuces) prepared ahead of time will taste even better the next day after their flavors have had time together,” says Connie Guttersen, RD, author of the Sonoma Diet.

If you’re grilling at your picnic destination, take along vegetables such as Portobello mushrooms, red peppers, zucchini, and onions. Grilled or roasted vegetables tossed with olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper (or your favorite vinaigrette) can also be done the night before if there are no grills available — or if you just want to get ahead of the game.

Grilled vegetables are great as a side dish, as a topping on grilled chicken sandwiches, or alone on a bun as a sort of “veggie burger.”

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 2: Light and Crunchy Appetizers

Pack your cooler with a variety of crisp, raw veggies like cucumbers, carrots, celery, asparagus tips, cherry tomatoes, and radishes are ideal for picnics. Take along a nutritious dip such as hummus, salsa, fat-free bean dip, or low-fat yogurt with herbs and spices. Stuffed celery with peanut butter, and baked tortilla chips and salsa, are favorites for both kids and adults.

“For the folks who want to dip with a cracker or crisp, try one of the many whole-grain crisps options available such as oat crisps, whole-grain rice chips instead of high-fat chips,” recommends Guttersen.

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 3: A Different Main Dish

Instead of picking up a basket of fried chicken or grilling burgers, why not pick up a roast chicken or try making wrap sandwiches?

“Wraps are easy to eat and transport, and can be supernutritious if you make them with lean meat, stuff them with veggies and a salsa or light dressing,” says Neville.

Making lean beef burgers or ground turkey breast burgers will shave fat and calories over regular ground beef. Skip the cheese and save even more.

Skinless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, and veggie burgers are other delicious picnic food ideas. Try them brushed with barbeque sauce and topped with lettuce, tomato, and other veggies. Hot dog lovers, choose the lower-fat brands or try a chicken or turkey dog.

Brighten up a chicken or turkey entrée salad with green grapes, mangoes, peaches, or toasted slivered almonds.

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 4: Sensational Salads

Resist the temptation to load your picnic basket with high-calorie salads held together with mayonnaise. Mayonnaise-based salads are not only high in fat, but are also a medium for growth of bacteria that can cause food-borne illness.

Instead, use dressings made with less oil and more vinegar or other added liquids such as fruit juices. Using salad dressings that contain acidic ingredients such as vinegar or citrus instead of mayonnaise not only cuts fat but helps keep foods safer at room temperature.

In starchy salads, substitute whole-grain pasta for white pasta and sweet potatoes for white potatoes. Or break free of tradition and try a brown rice salad or whole-wheat couscous salad. Combine cherry tomatoes with green beans and a little whole-grain pasta and add a little pesto for a tasty, nutritious salad that travels well.

Neville makes her favorite Mexican bean salad using a can of drained and rinsed black beans; a can of drained corn; a can of chopped Mexican-style tomatoes in lime juice; a chopped red pepper; a pinch of cumin; and a bit of cayenne.

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 5: Add Some Whole-Grain Goodness

Breads, rolls, and starchy salads can pile on lots of calories. So limit the starches in your picnic basket and wherever you can, make them whole grain for added nutritional value.

For a welcome change to the usual picnic fare, use whole-grain buns, pita bread, or wraps for your grilled meat, chicken, fish, or veggies.

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 6: Better Beverages

“It is so easy to get dehydrated, without even knowing it, when you are outdoors playing in the sun,” says Neville.

Children are especially prone to losing fluids, and often don’t want to interrupt their fun to drink.

Neville suggests beating the heat with plenty of ice water, sparkling water, unsweetened iced tea, and an assortment of low-calorie beverages. You can freeze water bottles the night before and use as cold packs to keep food and drinks cold.

If alcohol is on the menu, select light beer and wine spritzers. Both are more refreshing in the midday heat and lower in calories.

Other options to satisfy thirst include:

  • Frozen fruit pops
  • Lemonade with a splash of cranberry juice
  • Fruit juices mixed half and half with water

Healthy Picnic Food Idea No. 7: Sweet Indulgences

Dessert is a must at a picnic, and who can resist summer delicacies like berries, cherries, and peaches? A colorful fruit platter or fruit salad is sure to satisfy even the most discerning sweet tooth. Most kids (adults, too) also love diving into big wedges of juicy watermelon.

If you must have cookies, brownies, or cupcakes, keep the portions small. If cake is on the menu, make it an angel food cake topped with fresh berries and a dollop of light whipped topping.

Two More Tips

Finally, to make the most of your summer picnic:

Be Safe. Make sure your picnic food arrives safely by tightly packing cold food into one cooler and drinks in a separate cooler. Keep both coolers in the shade.

Be Active. Enjoy the fresh air. Being outdoors is a great chance to include some exercise and burn some calories. Take a hike, toss a Frisbee or football, play baseball, canoe, or plan a fun game for the whole gang.

Healthy Picnic Food: Recipes

For your next picnic, Guttersen suggests the following recipes from her Sonoma Diet Cookbook:

Confetti Summer Salad

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one serving as 1/4 cup starchy foods and legumes without fat + 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat.

Prep: 30 minutes; chill: 4 to 24 hours.

4 medium ears fresh corn or 2 cups frozen whole-kernel corn, thawed
4 baby zucchini, thinly sliced, or 1⁄2 of a small zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (1⁄2 cup)

2 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 green onions, sliced
1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1⁄2 cup bottled clear Italian salad dressing (such as Newman’s Own brand)
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Fresh thyme (optional)

If using fresh corn, in a covered large saucepan cook ears of corn in a small amount of boiling water for 4 minutes. Drain; rinse with cold water to cool. When cool enough to handle, cut corn from cobs (you should have about 2 cups corn kernels).

In a large bowl, combine fresh cooked corn or thawed corn, zucchini, tomatoes, green onions, bell peppers, salad dressing, and, if desired, cayenne pepper. Cover and chill for 4 to 24 hours, stirring occasionally. If desired, garnish with fresh thyme.

Yield: 8 side-dish servings

Per serving: 99 calories, 5 g total fat (1 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 253 mg sodium, 14 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 2 g protein

Antipasto Kabobs

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one serving as 1 cup vegetables without fat + 1 ounce low-fat cheese

The variety of textures, colors, and flavors in this recipe makes it the perfect prelude to virtually any entrée. These no-cook kabobs can also be served as satisfying snacks.

Prep: 30 minutes; marinate: 1 to 24 hours.

11⁄2 to 2 cups assorted fresh vegetables (such as baby carrots, halved radishes, bell pepper squares, whole miniature bell peppers, or halved pattypan squash)
2 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, provolone cheese, or smoked Gouda cheese, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces

2 ounces cooked smoked turkey sausage, cut into 3⁄4-inch-thick slices and quartered

2 tablespoons refrigerated basil pesto

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

12 whole fresh basil leaves

Place vegetables, cheese, and sausage in a self-sealing plastic bag set in a deep bowl.

For marinade, in a small bowl stir together pesto and vinegar; pour over vegetable mixture. Seal bag; turn to coat vegetable mixture. Marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 24 hours, turning bag occasionally.

On 12 4-inch-long wooden skewers, alternately thread vegetables, cheese, sausage, and basil leaves.

Yield: 12 skewers (6 servings)

Per serving: 84 calories, 6 g total fat (2 g sat. fat), 13 mg cholesterol, 188 mg sodium, 3 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 5 g protein.

White Bean and Artichoke Dip

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one serving as 1 serving bread

Artichokes are naturally fat free and are a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and folate. Enjoy their delicate flavor and nutritional benefits in this smooth, creamy dip.

Prep: 30 minutes; bake: 10 minutes per batch (pita chips); chill: 2 to 24 hours.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 19-ounce can cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained
1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 recipe Whole-Wheat Pita Chips or 8 cups assorted vegetable dippers (such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, and/or red bell pepper strips)

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add thinly sliced garlic; cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until garlic is tender and golden brown (reduce heat to medium-low if garlic is browning too quickly). Stir in onion and thyme. Cook and stir about 5 minutes more or until onion is tender.

In a food processor combine cooked onion mixture, cannellini beans, artichoke hearts, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. Cover and process until smooth. Cover and chill for 2 to 24 hours.

Serve with Whole-Wheat Pita Chips or vegetable dippers.

Whole-Wheat Pita Chips: Preheat oven to 350°F. Split 4 large whole-wheat pita bread rounds in half horizontally. Cut each half into six wedges. Arrange pita wedges in a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until wedges are browned and crisp. (Bake the wedges in batches.) Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week. Makes 48 chips.

Yield: 16 servings.

Per serving (2 tablespoons dip and 3 pita wedges): 91 cal., 2 g total fat (0 g sat. fat), 0 mg chol., 220 mg sodium, 16 g carbo., 4 g fiber, 4 g pro.

Mozzarella with Herbs

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one serving as 1 ounce regular cheese

Hailing from Italy, mild-flavor mozzarella is perfectly complemented by this assortment of herbs and spices.

Prep: 15 minutes. Stand: 30 minutes. Chill: 2 to 4 hours.

8 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, cut into bite-size pieces (2 cups)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, combine mozzarella cheese, olive oil, basil, oregano, and parsley. Cover and chill for 2 to 4 hours.

Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Season to taste with kosher salt and pepper.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 103 cal., 8 g total fat (3 g sat. fat), 18 mg chol., 206 mg sodium, 1 g carbo., 0 g fiber, 7 g pro.

Here are a couple of variations for this dish:

Tomato-Mozzarella Salad: Prepare as directed, except add 4 cups roma tomato wedges and 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar. Serve on a bed of 6 cups fresh spinach.

Yield: 6 servings.

Per serving: 169 cal., 11 g fat (5 g sat. fat), 24 mg chol., 304 mg sodium, 8 g carbo., 2 g fiber, 11 g pro.

Spicy Monterey Jack Cheese with Herbs: Prepare as directed, except substitute reduced-fat Monterey Jack cheese for the mozzarella cheese and add 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed red pepper.

Yield: 8 servings.

Per serving: 111 cal., 9 g fat (4 g sat. fat), 20 mg chol., 271 mg sodium, 1 g carbo., 0 g fiber, 7 g pro.

Recipes reprinted from The Sonoma Diet Cookbook (Meredith Books), 2006, by Connie Guttersen. Republished with permission from the author.

Sandwiches

1. The Ultimate Veggie Sandwich

If you didn’t tear up at the beauty of this sandwich, you might want to get your eyes checked. Packed with sliced cucumber, carrot, tomato, and avocado, plus a pile of shredded cabbage and sprouts, this makes for one pretty meal. The only question is how to wrap your mouth around the whole thing for one monster bite.

2. Vegetarian Muffuletta

This spin on a New Orleans classic is no low-key sandwich. A mixed olive salad is livened up with layers of colorful eggplant, peppers, artichokes, and Swiss chard. Slices of smoked provolone are optional, but we think a little cheese adds just the right amount of creaminess. Be forewarned: It’s considered blasphemous to toast or otherwise heat a muffuletta.

3. Chicken and Veggie Pinwheels

Say it with us: Bite-size pinwheels are a picnic’s best friend. They’re easy to store, totally shareable, and you can fill them with just about anything. These mini wraps are packed with red and yellow bell peppers, baby spinach, purple cabbage, shredded cooked chicken (hello, last night’s leftovers!), and a sprinkle of dry ranch powder for a little punch.

4. Smoked Salmon Lavash Wrap

Swap that boring wrap for whole-wheat lavash, a thin Middle Eastern flatbread (available near the deli section of most grocery stores), and fill the inside with arugula, alfalfa sprouts, cucumber, and a few slices of smoked salmon for protein. We love just a bit of the lemon-dill spread in this dish, but if you’re avoiding cream cheese and mayo, use Greek yogurt.

Salads

5. Herby Potato Salad

This potato salad calls for a bright onion and herb vinaigrette instead of thick mayo. Plus you get added crunch from chopped apples and a bit of nutty flavor (and protein!) from chickpeas in every bite.

6. Lentil Cauliflower Salad

Lentils are a fantastic meat-free source of protein and, when paired with cauliflower, make a filling, healthy salad perfect for carrying to a picnic in the park. The salad is tossed with turmeric, cilantro, and coriander for added flavor.

7. Shaved Beet, Carrot, and Radish Salad

Thinly sliced raw carrots, beets, and radishes create a crunchy, fresh-tasting salad that’s packed with antioxidants. The dressing—flavored with apple cider vinegar, Dijon, and coriander—is just the right balance of acidic and spicy.

8. Black Rice With Mango and Cashews

Pro tip: Black rice, also known as “forbidden rice,” is a stunning swap to its white or brown counterparts. Pair it with sweet mango and toasted cashews for flavor and texture; jalapeño for heat; and a fresh, lime-based dressing.

9. Spiralized Carrot Salad

Crunchy, spiralized carrots are the star of this simple salad (though you can also just shave the veggies with a peeler). Toss with a tart lemony-ginger dressing and sprinkle in some parsley to cut the acid. We think a handful of crumbled feta would be well received here too.

Snacks

10. Melon, Prosciutto, and Mozzarella Skewers

Sweet cantaloupe and salty prosciutto complement each other perfectly in these Italian-inspired skewers. Mozzarella adds a creamy, fresh flavor to the mix, and a drizzle of balsamic reduction brings in a touch of acidity.

11. Avocado Mango Brown Rice Sushi

Letting raw-fish sushi hang out in the sun for the afternoon isn’t a good idea. Vegetable-based sushi, on the other hand, is a great idea. Roasted sweet potato, avocado, cucumber, and carrots all make great fillings, but if you’re feeling something a bit sweeter, try filling the rolls with fresh mango, like in this recipe.

12. Caprese Fruit Skewers

You may have tried the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil combo, but what about adding some fruit to the mix? These caprese salad-inspired skewers are filled with chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew alongside the traditional fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. Add some prosciutto for good luck!

13. Mojito Fruit Salad

Use whatever fruit is in season for this colorful salad. Stone fruit such as nectarines, plums, and peaches pair well with the slightly sour lime dressing. Mix in berries, kiwi, grapes, and melon for a bit of extra sweetness. This recipe is nonalcoholic, but you could add a splash of rum to the lime juice if you’re in the mood for a more adult fruit salad.

Desserts

14. Banana Cream Pie Jar Parfaits

For a portable, personal dessert that tastes just like banana cream pie, try this: Layer coconut sugar-sweetened vanilla pudding mixed with yogurt between sliced bananas and granola. Top with a handful of chocolate chips to please chocoholics.

15. Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fuse two classic cookies and give them a healthy spin. Mix quick-cooking oats with whole-wheat flour and honey (plus a generous scoop of dark chocolate chips) for a cookie that’s packed with texture and flavor. We recommend bringing along a thermos of milk for dunking!

16. Mango Fruit Roll-Ups

Relive the picnics of your childhood with a healthier spin. These fruit roll-ups contain nothing but fresh mango. Simply blend and bake at a low heat for several hours. Your picnic friends won’t believe you made them yourself, so go ahead and pat yourself on the back.

Drinks

17. Strawberry Basil Watermelon Aqua Fresca

You may not believe it, but basil and fruit make a delicious pairing. This simple juice can be made ahead of time and poured into thermoses for optimal picnic sipping. Just be sure to give it a good shake before serving to distribute the frothy watermelon purée.

18. Meyer Lemon and Jasmine Iced Tea

Mild Jasmine tea and tart lemon juice make an incredibly refreshing drink—perfect for hot evenings spent picnicking in the park. You don’t have to bring ice, but the tea is best served super cold.

19. Strawberry Lemonade

This honey-sweetened strawberry lemonade is essentially just fancy pink lemonade—but it’s way tastier. Pack servings in individual jars or in one big thermos.

20. Raspberry Peach Iced Tea

The base for this beverage is plain old black tea. But when combined with a fresh peach and raspberry purée (strained to remove any seeds and pulp), you get a naturally flavored and perfectly sweet liquid treat.

21. Basil Cucumber Gin Cooler

Cucumber alone is hydrating and refreshing. Now imagine it combined with basil, gin, lemon, and sparkling water—we think it might be the ultimate summer picnic cocktail.

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