To call the picnic a classic culinary activity would be something of an understatement. The history of the picnic is thought to trace all the way back to medieval hunting feasts in 14th-century England. Though there were no baskets or red-and-white checkered blankets to be found in the earliest versions of this tradition, one thing that's remained constant throughout the evolution of the picnic is the presence of food. Back then, this shared meal typically consisted of ham, baked meats and pastries, while the modern-day adaptation usually includes items such as fried chicken, potato salad, hamburgers, hot dogs and brownies.
Though it may be a delicious list, it's not necessarily a nutritious one. Many conventional picnic foods really pack a punch when it comes to calories, fat, salt and sugar. For example, just one piece of extra crispy fried chicken breast from Kentucky Fried Chicken packs 510 calories, 33 grams of fat, and 1250 milligrams of sodium. On the sodium front alone, that's half of the daily allowance recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But you don't have to ditch the picnic all together to keep your waistline in check. Instead, try streamlining your picnic basket with the following ideas for healthier food alternatives, including appetizers, main dishes, sides, and yes, even desserts, too.
For a fun and healthy appetizer, skip the cheese and crackers and try edamame instead. The soybean, which East Asians have enjoyed as a source of protein for more than 2,000 years, has gained popularity in the United States and is a staple on most sushi restaurant menus. Though you can purchase edamame beans already shelled, for picnic purposes, it's probably best to go with the variety still encased in their pods for portability -- think of it as a convenient, built-in food delivery device. Bags of frozen edamame pods are available in the freezer section of most grocery stores near other vegetables, and cooking them is a breeze. Just drop the desired amount into boiling water for five minutes or so, drain, and cool. And the extra bonus? A half a cup of shucked beans comes in at just 100 calories and 2.5 grams of fat.
A bag of chips can be a tempting and convenient grab, but the calorie and sodium content of these snacks can easily add up to staggering amounts with every handful. Just 12 cheese-flavored tortilla chips will add 140 calories and 7 grams of fat to your daily total, and the same amount of barbeque potato chips, which has 150 calories and 10 grams of fat, is about as bad. For this reason, it may be best to skip the chips entirely and replace them with whole-wheat pita rounds, each of which has as few as 80 calories and 1 gram of fat. A fun way to serve these is to toast and cut them into small triangles. Raw veggies, including carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, also make a great crunchy chip alternative. For healthier dips, choose hummus, salsa or black bean varieties over queso, refried beans, or creamy, fatty dressings such as ranch.
If you have access to a grill at your picnic site, burgers are both easy to transport and quick to prepare and turn out to hungry companions. However, keep in mind ground beef is typically composed of 15 to 20 percent fat or more. A 3-ounce (85-gram) patty using this type of meat will have at least 250 calories and 17 grams of fat -- and that's before you add any fixings. Consider alternate protein sources such as ground turkey, chicken or even veggie burgers. If you must use ground beef, look for a lean mix with 7 percent fat or less, which will help bring down the calorie count, too. Skipping the bun will save you another 120 calories on average. Or, at the very least, try using only the bottom portion of the bun to anchor your burger. When it comes to toppings, avoid the temptation to make a bacon cheeseburger and opt for lighter fixings, such as black bean and corn salsa, roasted peppers, grilled mushrooms or soy cheese instead.
When you're picnicking in an area where there's no grill on site, try picking up a roast chicken from your local grocery store to serve as a main dish. It's just as convenient as picking up a bucket of fried chicken, but much healthier: A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of roast chicken (with the skin removed) comes in at just 120 calories. Roast chicken meat also pulls off the bone very easily, allowing you to serve portions with a fresh, fruity side, such as mango salsa. Or, if your picnic is more of a walking, talking affair, stuff the meat in a whole wheat pita for better portability.
Create a heart-smart, on-the-go deli for your picnic by packing lean proteins such turkey and chicken, low-fat cheeses, whole grain bread, and healthy fixings such as lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and bell peppers. Another option is to ditch the bread entirely and use the protein as an outer layer to create carb-free roll-ups, which can be secured with a toothpick or two. Choose condiments wisely as well: Regular mayo packs a whopping 90 to 100 calories and 10 grams of fat per tablespoon, and it doesn't hold up well in heat -- not even the lighter varieties. Instead, try dressing sandwiches with healthier selections, such as mustard or salsa. Also, keep in mind that many pre-packaged deli meats can contain high amounts of preservatives and sodium, so read labels carefully before buying, and look for organic or lower sodium varieties. Many deli counters offer these healthier alternatives, which tend to be cheaper by the pound. However, the lack of preservatives also means a shorter shelf life, so don't purchase these proteins too far ahead of your outing.
Salads are a healthy and filling option for a picnic, as long as they're done right. It is, after all, very easy to make an unhealthy salad. Too often, people weigh down their greens with calorie-filled dressings, such as blue cheese, ranch or Thousand Island, and empty calorie add-ons such as croutons and bacon bits. To avoid this trap, start with freshly washed, leafy greens, then add fresh veggies and low-fat or low-calorie dressing (but wait to toss in dressings until you're at the picnic site, so the lettuce doesn't get soggy). You can also turn a tossed salad into a main dish by adding proteins such as beans -- pinto, black or white -- or a boneless, skinless chicken breast that you've baked and diced prior to leaving the house. If you prefer slaws, try swapping out cole slaw made with high-calorie mayonnaise for a broccoli slaw flavored with light vinaigrette instead.
Pasta, potato and egg salads are usually full of calories and fat, especially those that use ingredients such as mayonnaise, sour cream and cheese. You can lighten up traditional recipes by replacing the starch with whole-wheat pasta, or healthy, alternative grains such as couscous or bulgur. To give your new dish some substance, steam and dice vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini and squash, and add them in generous amounts to create a 3-to-1 veggie-to-pasta (or grain) ratio. Avoid using mayonnaise -- which spoils quickly in heat -- as well as heavy, calorie-filled dressings, and flavor your side dish with light vinaigrettes instead. If potato salad is a must, look for a recipe that ditches regular potatoes and uses sweet potatoes instead for a boost of vitamin A.
Complex carbohydrates such as grilled vegetables can make for a filling and healthy side dish. Try preparing a mix of grillable favorites, including summer squash, zucchini, peppers, onions and mushrooms, brushing them lightly with olive oil and seasoning them with pepper to taste. Slice up the veggies ahead of time for simplicity, and make clean-up a breeze by wrapping them up in foil before grilling. If you're headed to a picnic destination that does not have grilling capabilities on site, no worries: Just roast the veggies in the oven beforehand and wrap them up to go. They'll taste good cold, too.
Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too -- if you opt for a variety with fewer calories, such as angel food cake. One slice contains about 120 to 140 calories and virtually no fat, unlike traditional yellow cake, which comes in at 300 to 400 calories per slice (and that's without frosting). You can make your own angel food cake from scratch or keep it simple by picking up a pre-made one in the bakery section of your local grocery store. For a refreshing summer treat, add some sliced strawberries along with fat-free whipped topping (keep the latter in the freezer, then transfer to the cooler as you're leaving to give it time to defrost). Though you'll need a cooler for this dessert to make sure the toppings stay fresh, keep the angel food cake stored separately so it doesn't get wet and soggy before you're ready to serve and enjoy.
For a flour-free dessert, create a sweet and healthy twist on traditional kabobs by cutting up a variety of fresh fruit, such as pineapple, apples, peaches, strawberries and bananas. Keep the chunks around cubic inch or less in size, and stack them on skewers, alternating among the different types of fruit as you go. To give the kabobs an extra kick, before you head out, use the microwave or stove to melt some dark chocolate. According to a study published in the European Heart Journal, eating a little more than one small square of dark chocolate per day can reduce a person's risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure as well. Once melted, transfer the sauce it to a small container and try to keep it from cooling too much so it doesn't harden (this works best on a warm day). Then, just drizzle the chocolate over the dessert kabobs right before you serve them for the perfect end to your outdoor meal.
Creating a healthy picnic menu requires some advance planning, a few adjustments and maybe even a little creativity, but you and your guests can still enjoy a full and satisfying picnic experience without all the extra calories and fat. Your waistline and arteries will thank you.
HowStuffWorks explores whether posting calories on the menu helps consumers make better food choices.
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- Galeano-Zalutko, Stephanie. "New study touting health benefits of dark chocolate." Philadelphia Health Care Examiner. 04/02/2010.http://www.examiner.com/x-24352-Philadelphia-Health-Care-Examiner~y2010m4d2-New-study-touting-benefits-of-dark-chocolate
- Kentucky Fried Chicken Nutritional Guide. 05/06/2010.http://www.kfc.com/nutrition/pdf/kfc_nutrition.pdf
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- Piscatella, Joseph C. The Road to a Healthy Heart Runs Through the Kitchen. Workman Publishing, December 2005.
- Sixwise.com. "Instead of Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, or Tostitos ... Consider Edamame." 10/05/2005.http://www.sixwise.com/newsletters/05/10/05/instead-of-fritos-doritos-cheetos-or-tostitos--consider-edamame.htm
- United States Department of Health and Human Services. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2005)." 05/06/2010.http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/default.htm