Healthy Picnic Food Ideas

Last Editorial Review: 7/31/2007

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.

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


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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 drippy 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

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

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

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

1 1/2 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

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)


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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

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.

Published July 27, 2007.

SOURCES: Kerry Neville, MS, RD, American Dietetic Association spokesperson. Connie Guttersen, RD, PhD, culinary professional; author, The Sonoma Diet and The Sonoma Diet Cookbook. Ellie Krieger, MS, RD, host of Food Network's Healthy Appetite.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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