Pack a Healthy Picnic Basket

As much as we may enjoy them, picnics and barbecues can present challenges when it comes to eating well. 

Much of our favorite picnic fare – hamburgers and potato salad, fried chicken and coleslaw, chips with dip and brownies – is made up of greasy, high-fat, high-sodium foods.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  

Start with fresh, seasonal ingredients.  Area farmers markets are teeming with colorful fruits and vegetables. 

Prepare foods in healthy ways and you can eat well at your next picnic or barbecue. 

EvergreenHealth’s Marcy Dorsey, RD, suggests finding a balance between enjoying traditional picnic fare and making these swaps to eat well at your next picnic or barbecue:

Chicken:

  • One extra-crispy fried chicken breast from KFC has 490 calories, 29 grams of fat, and 1140 milligrams of sodium, nearly half of your daily allowance! 
  • Try our recipe below for Oven Fried Chicken instead – it has only 7 grams of fat per serving. 
  • Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken and vegetable skewers on the grill are other healthy chicken options.

Burgers and dogs: 

  • If it’s just not a cookout without beef burgers, opt for grass-fed beef, which is higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed beef. 
  • Turkey or chicken burgers are leaner options, and veggie burgers give you the burger experience with no meat. 
  • As an alternative, try grilled eggplant slices or Portobello mushroom caps for a boost of phytochemicals and fiber. 
  • Pile on the lettuce, tomato, and onion, and choose small portions of mayo or cheese. 
  • It’s probably best to avoid hotdogs altogether or have them only occasionally, as even healthier turkey or chicken versions can be high in sodium, according to Health magazine.

Buns: 

  • Choose whole-grain buns, breads, or crackers. 
  • Or have your burger on a leaf of lettuce and skip the bun altogether.

Chips and dips:

  • Try swapping plain Greek yogurt for most or all of the sour cream or mayonnaise in creamy dips. 
  • Even better, serve hummus with vegetables or baked whole-grain pita chips, or salsa and baked tortilla chips. 
  • Or bring along air-popped popcorn to munch.

Salads and sides: 

  • Forgo the processed potato and macaroni salads that can be high in poor-quality fats and sodium; try our lightened-up potato salad and coleslaw recipes below. 
  • Grilled vegetables – such as mushrooms, zucchini, onions, peppers – are a way to get your grill flavor somewhere other than meat. 
  • Grilled corn on the cob is a great BBQ option, plus it comes in its own wrapper. For a picnic, you can cook or grill corn at home and wrap it in foil to take along. 
  • Cooked edamame – soybeans in the pod – can be steamed at home for picnic snacking. Half a cup of shucked beans has 100 calories and 2.5 grams of fat.
  • Fresh green salad can be colorful with lots of seasonal vegetables and fruit.  Skip the creamy dressing, cheeses, and bacon and opt for a light dressing to keep it healthy.  
  • Salad swaps.  Try whole-grains – quinoa, brown rice, barley – or chopped vegetables in place of the pasta in pasta salad.  Or try a broccoli or bean salad in place of coleslaw or baked beans.  

Desserts: 

  • So much produce is in season now, so pick your favorites and eat them whole or make a colorful fruit salad for dessert. 
  • Kids will love slices of watermelon, and a large wedge has just 86 calories plus vitamin C, beta carotene, and lycopene. 
  • Use fresh fruit to top low-fat angel food cake.

Drinks:.

  • Choose water or unsweetened tea to wet your whistle; skip the soda or other sugary drinks. 
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, choose wine or light beer over high-calorie mixed drinks.  

Food Safety

Another aspect of eating well at your next picnic or home barbecue is food safety. 

Foods with dairy ingredients will tend to spoil more quickly in the sun and heat, yet another reason to avoid creamy dips and salads. 

There is some controversy about the health effects of grilling meat.  Some research shows that consuming well-done meat can lead to increased risk of certain types of cancer due to HCA formation in these foods.

To make grilling safer, you can:

  • Cook at a lower temperature (325 or below). Allow for extra cooking time and use a meat thermometer to make sure meat is cooked thoroughly.
  • Marinate.  A spicy marinade may prevent HCA formation and will add antioxidants. A wine or beer marinade may reduce carcinogens.
  • Pre-cook meat in the microwave for one or two minutes at medium power. Studies have shown that doing this can decrease HCAs by 90%.  Be sure to throw out the juice after microwaving, since that’s where the HCAs are found.
  • Grill vegetables instead of meat to get great grilled flavor with no carcinogens.

While it may take a little extra planning, it is easy to make healthy swaps and still have a great picnic meal. 


Recipes

Oven Fried Chicken

Light and Fresh Potato Salad

Confetti Slaw with Poppy-Seed Dressing

Roasted Tomato Hummus


Marcy Dorsey, RD, is a registered dietitian and nutrition counselor at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, WA.

Marcy Dorsey, RD, is a registered dietitian at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, WA.


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