17 Ways to Picnic the Healthy Way

Go beyond fried chicken and potato salad with these fresh and delicious picnic ideas.

Eating outside under the sun, with the crash of waves on the beach or the wind through the trees as your musical accompaniment, makes any meal taste better.

If the word “picnic” is synonymous in your mind with fried chicken, potato salad topped with bacon, and overstuffed hoagies, this is for you. Here are 17 ways to ensure that dining al fresco doesn’t translate to dining al fatso.

1. Try these easy-to-transport entrées:
Turkey or chicken breast sandwiches with low-fat cheese, sandwich pickles, tomatoes, and spinach leaves.

Hummus stuffed into whole wheat pita bread with bean sprouts, diced tomatoes, and sliced grapes.

A green salad topped with grilled chicken. Pack the dressing separately.

Whole wheat wraps with smoked salmon, capers, tomato, avocado, hummus, spinach, and shredded carrots.

Cumin, black bean, and corn salad. Rinse and drain a can of black beans and a can of sweet corn. Mix with a drizzle of olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of cumin.

Ricotta, spinach, and Parmesan whole wheat wrap. Place 2 cups loosely packed raw spinach leaves in food processor and grind. Mix in 1/2 cup fat-free ricotta and 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, and wrap in a whole wheat burrito.

Mediterranean tomato salad in whole wheat pita. Dice fresh tomato and cucumber, mix with a thinly sliced red onion and black olives, drizzle with a little olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper and stuff into a pita pocket.

2. Pack angel food cake for dessert. Bring sliced strawberries and nonfat whipped topping along for your own version of strawberry shortcake. Freeze the whipped topping the night before; it will thaw by the time you’re ready to serve and still be cold enough to be safe. Or even easier, pick up a can of it.

3. Stuff celery with nonfat cream cheese, peanut butter, or goat cheese for appetizers. Baked corn chips with fat-free salsa or fat-free bean dip also works great as a meal opener.

4. Substitute this for fried chicken. Brush boneless, skinless chicken thighs with olive oil and sprinkle with rosemary, salt, and pepper. Bake or grill until juices run clear, about 45 minutes. Chill overnight and bring along on your picnic. For another option that’s just as finger-lickin’ messy as the real thing, mix the juice of 1 lemon with 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup honey, a pinch of curry powder, and a pinch of salt. Roll skinless chicken drumsticks in the mixture to coat well and bake until done, 45-60 minutes.

5. Freeze turkey burgers the night before. By the time you’re ready to grill, they should be thawed and ready to go. Other good burger options: salmon burgers, lentil burgers, veggie burgers, and ground chicken burgers.

6. Instead of mayonnaise-dripping coleslaw, buy a package of coleslaw mix and drizzle on fat-free Italian dressing once you’re ready to eat.

7. Replace mayonnaise in summer salads with nonfat yogurt, sour cream, or a mustard vinaigrette.

8. Pack baby veggies for dipping. Another good use for baby vegetables (tiny corn, squashes, cauliflower, etc.) is to pickle them the day before by soaking them in a jar of vinegar.

9. Instead of sweetened sodas or fruit juices, bring seltzer mixed with all-natural fruit juice; unsweetened, flavored iced tea; or bottles of water. Freeze the bottled water the night before, to use as cold packs to keep food cold. When you’re ready to eat, you’ll have an icy bottle of water ready to drink.

10. Instead of hot dogs, take along turkey kielbasa or apple chicken sausages for grilling.

11. Make a Thanksgiving-in-the-summer salad. This recipe comes from Joan Salge Blake, R.D., clinical assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University’s Sargent College. Mix leftover chicken or turkey with dried cranberries, 2 tablespoons light mayonnaise, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon and stuff into a whole wheat pizza pita.

12. Go Mediterranean. Microwave two boxes of whole wheat couscous (boil the water in a Pyrex measuring cup, add the couscous, cover with a plate, and let steam) and add fresh or roasted vegetables, a can of chickpeas, a sprinkling of feta cheese and sliced black olives, and a drizzle of olive oil. “Now you’ve got a gorgeous Mediterranean salad that goes great on a picnic,” says Blake.

13. Pack frozen mango cubes. They provide a sweet accompaniment to any picnic. Or mix several bags of frozen fruits in a container. By the time you’re ready to eat, you’ll have a sorbet-like treat.

14. Make your own salsa. Drain a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes with green chiles and add a handful of fresh cilantro leaves and a pinch or two of cumin and salt to taste. Put through the food processor or mini chopper and voilà! Salsa. Serve with baked tortilla chips or add to black beans for a cold salad just perfect for picnicking, says Lisa C. Andrews, R.D., a nutritionist at the VA Medical Center in Cincinnati.

15. Make your pasta salad a meal. Before the picnic, Andrews recommends grilling skinless chicken breasts, cutting them into strips, and adding them to pasta salad. Toss in some fresh broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes with low-fat dressing and you’ve got a main course.

16. Try a sweet potato salad. In a great variation on the original that’s chock-full of valuable antioxidants and beta-carotene, Andrews suggests peeling and boiling a few sweet potatoes, then letting them cool. Cut into chunks and toss with enough orange juice to cover, a pinch of cinnamon, and your favorite dried fruit (Andrews prefers cranberries). Serve cold.

17. Bring a whole watermelon, cantaloupe, or honeydew and slice it open on the spot. Nature’s packing works beautifully to keep fresh fruit cool and fresh.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest