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Diet and Nutrition

Preparing the Perfect Picnic

As temperatures continue to rise this summer, picnickers are flocking to parks and beaches. Picnics are a great opportunity to enjoy nature, take advantage of the slower pace of summer, and indulge in fresh seasonal produce. Whether you’re a pro picnic-planner or a novice who is perhaps intimidated by everything it takes to create a nutritious, safe-to-eat outdoor feast, there’s certainly a lot to keep in mind when serving food outside the comforts of your kitchen. But rest assured: With just a few additional minutes of preparation and planning, you can impress even your pickiest picnic-goers.

Packing a healthy basket

Putting together the perfect picnic basket is a little like putting together a charcuterie board—daunting at first, but completely worth it when the compliments come rolling in. Like preparing a meal at home for guests, the task of creating a picnic should keep in mind a few essentials to create a delicious and healthy meal. Remember the following tips to pack a tasty, filling basket that’s sure to please everyone.

  • First, eat seasonally! The wealth of summer produce offers delicious, healthy variety—from berries to tomatoes to leafy greens and everything in between. When designing your basket, pack a rainbow. Eating a variety of different-colored produce ensures you are covering the majority of your micronutrient needs. Bonuses: A colorful spread looks beautiful and draws hungry bellies to the table.
  • Next, offer your guests options. Make sure the food items in your basket include a mix of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber. Our bodies need each of these nutrients for different purposes. Carbohydrates give us the quick energy necessary to pep up during conversations with guests. Protein keeps us full and powers our muscles through another round of frisbee. Fats help us absorb all the nutrients from our seasonal veggies and contribute loads of flavor. And fiber fills us up, aids digestion, and helps keep us fueled from sunup to sundown.
  • Finally, stay hydrated! Although much of nutrition advice focuses on the food, don’t forget the water! Being out and active in the sun all day is dehydrating, and providing plenty of clean, fresh water for your guests will keep everyone happy and healthy.

Keeping your basket—and cooler—safe

Now that your menu is set, be sure to refresh your knowledge of food safety before heading out to the park.

  • Food-safety rule number one? Wash your hands. Wash them before you handle or eat any food, after using the restroom, after touching any animals, after you eat, and anytime you think they might be dirty. If you don’t have easy access to running water, be sure to bring a container of clean water with soap. Hand sanitizer is not an ideal substitute for hand-washing when it comes to handling food.
  • The four main principles of food safety are simple: clean, separate, cook, and chill. Clean your hands and any surfaces before they touch food to prevent the spread of bacteria. Separate raw meat and ready-to-eat foods. Separation includes using different cutting boards, utensils, and coolers for any raw meat.
  • Cook and store all foods at a safe temperature before serving. This will vary for different foods—for example, chicken must be cooked to 165°F, and fish must be cooked to 145°F. A meat thermometer is the only way to guarantee your meat has been cooked properly. Even the best chefs cannot depend on their eyes to know when something is fully cooked! Finally, chill food within two hours of cooking it (or within one hour if it is more than 90°F outside). Store refrigerated food at or below 40°F to prevent bacteria growth. And if food is sitting out in the temperature “danger zone” (between 40°F and 140°F ) for more than two hours at your picnic, throw it away. To avoid the danger zone and help keep prepared food safe to eat, many picnickers bring coolers with plenty of ice packs or ice cubes to ensure proper storage.

Helping your guests stay safe

Protecting fellow picnickers from foodborne illness is as important as preventing the spread of other contagious bacteria and viruses. Although COVID-19 cannot be spread from food to food, it is most certainly spread from person to person. Keep this reality in mind when planning your gatherings—even those that are held outdoors. You may want to limit the number of guests you invite to be able to maintain adequate social distancing or recommend masks if you’re worried about crowds. Packing single-serving drinks and avoiding buffet-style serving can also stop the spread of germs, since multiple people will not be touching the same surface many times. Even with increased protective measures, COVID-19 remains a presence in our society, so taking a few protective measures can help keep you and your friends safe.

Enjoying your picnic

Time with friends and family; enjoying fresh, seasonal food; and lounging in the grass are quintessential pieces of summertime—and what better way to enjoy all three than with a picnic? With just a bit of nutrition know-how and food-safety knowledge, you can feel confident putting together your picnic basket (and cooler!). Pack up your feast with these tips in mind, and you’ll be sure to enjoy a nutritious, delicious, and safe picnic before summer fades away.

This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.