Healthy Picnics

Summer is just around the corner, and that means that it’s almost picnic time! Picnics can be fun and inexpensive family outings, get togethers with friends, first dates, or just a way to get the kiddos outdoors! Many parks exist and are usually free to the public, and may offer spaces for eating like tables and canopies - be sure to check out your local areas while planning your picnics!

So you’ve picked a time and a place for your picnic, all that is left is the most important detail - what will you eat? And how will you do so healthfully and safely?

First things first - what are the must haves for keeping your food safe to eat? Keep in mind a couple golden rules. First of all, keep your hot foods hot and your cold foods cold. This rule is important because when cooked food and refrigerated foods reach room temperatures, they become a perfect spot for bacteria to grow, and if left out too long, these bacteria can become a risk for food illness. Following this rule can be tricky because we often bring cooked and refrigerated foods from home and to the picnic. If your picnic location has grills available for public use, you may decide to cook your food on site to avoid the risk of food cooling. If cooking at the park is not a good option for you, insulated food carriers made to keep your food warm can be purchased at many retailers, in store or online, and they come in a variety of sizes and prices! To keep your cold foods cold, coolers and ice packs are a great tool. Many insulated carriers are also designed to be multipurpose, so look out for brands that may carry hot or cold food!

Second important rule - keep it clean. Eating outdoors can make this a challenge, so it is important to plan ahead and pack prepared! The following steps and items can assist you in making sure your food and eating area stays clean and safe to eat.

  1. Make sure all items have some kind of cover, whether that is a lid or wrap. This can prevent spills during travel, and keep unwanted critters off our food.   This week Our Family Resealable Storage or Freezer Bags 30-50 ct. Quart or Gallon size are on sale for $2.49!  Stock up now for many great picnics!
  2. Pack appropriate serving utensils, and keep them covered until you’re ready to use them. Large plastic containers or plastic wrap work well for this purpose.
  3. Plan to clean up before eating. Table coverings, either cloth or disposable, can create a clean spot to set food and eat. Disposable wet wipes are a good resource to clean eating surfaces and dirty fingers while at a picnic.
  4. Put together as much of your meal items as you can at home. This will help reduce the amount of food items you need to transport, and limit exposure of that food to the outdoors.

Finally, which foods should we pack! Much like at home, a good rule of thumb is to aim to get a variety of foods and colors into every meal. When planning a picnic, also consider foods that will transport well, and to make your life easier, choose foods that require limited cooling or heating to be safe to eat. Several important food groups to consider when creating your picnic meal are described next.

Fruits and Vegetables: Many fresh fruits and vegetables are safe to enjoy without cooking or cooling. In particular, items that do not require any cutting before eating, like those which have skins or are naturally bite size, are great options for a picnic. Some examples include: whole berries, apples, citrus, snap peas, baby carrots, colored peppers, and many more.

Proteins: Many animal forms of protein require some form of cooking to be safe to eat, or are high in fats and salt. Look for lower fat and sodium alternatives like chicken and turkey versions of deli meats, burgers and hot dogs. Nuts, seeds, and nut butters are other great protein options which stay safe to eat at room temperature

Grains: When selecting grains, whole wheat and high fiber content are important things to look out for! Breads, crackers, and popcorn are easy grains which do not require cooking and stay safe at room temperature

Dairy: Most dairy foods will require refrigeration. Fat free and low fat milk cartons, individually wrapped cheese sticks and yogurt pouches are convenient options to store in coolers!

This post was authored by:  Jake Foote.  Jake is a Spartan through and through, completing his Bachelor's in Dietetics with Michigan State University in 2018, as well as wrapping up his dietetic internship with them this May 2019 and finally completing his Master's in Human Nutrition in the fall of 2019. Jake has a passion for helping others lead happier and healthier lives!

"This medical and/or nutritional information is not intended to be a substitute for individual advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition."