Healthy Picnic Food Ideas

Lighten up your summer outings with these healthy picnic recipes and tips.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

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.

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 entree 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.