There's nothing like eating outdoors with your feet in the grass, leaving walls, ceilings and shoes behind. But picnics also pose challenges, like how to prep healthy fare that will please a crowd, and how to keep food cold without the convenience of a kitchen. The solution? Try these 16 recipe swaps, food-safety tips and fitness tricks to keep you and your guests happy and healthy. By prepping lightened-up versions of barbecue staples, you'll be able to enjoy everything without falling into a sleepy post-picnic "food coma." Keep an eye on food safety and add in a little exercise, and you've got the recipe for a perfect picnic.
Recipe #1: Potato Salad With Parsnips and Edamame
No one has ever looked at a bowl of chopped potatoes smothered in mayonnaise and said, "This looks healthy." For a creative lighter version, try making this recipe for Asian-inspired potato salad with parsnips and edamame by Toby Amidor, M.S., RD. To keep the dressing creamy and cut down on fat, Amidor mixes mayonnaise with nonfat plain Greek yogurt. CALORIES: 126.
Recipe #2: Sweet Potato Salad
For a mayo-free potato salad alternative, try making this recipe for sweet potato salad by Jessica Fishman Levinson, M.S., RDN, CDN, founder of Nutritioulicious. "It's the perfect balance of sweet and savory and goes with pretty much anything you'd make at a barbecue," Fishman Levinson says. Bonus: Sweet potatoes are lower in calories and higher in fiber than white spuds. CALORIES: 126.
Recipe #3: Company Pasta Salad
Pasta salad is typically made with white pasta and a few tiny vegetables poking out -- not particularly filling or healthy. For a side or snack that will fill you up for hours, make the salad with high-fiber whole-wheat pasta and load it up fibrous vegetables like beans, artichokes, peas, and broccoli. Try this recipe for Company Pasta Salad by Holley Grainger, MS, RD. It's a lighter mix of pasta, colorful vegetables, cheese and herbs tossed in Champagne vinaigrette for a fresh and "puckery" flavor. CALORIES: 146.
Recipe #4: Chicken and Fig Sandwiches
Eating processed red meats like sausage and salami has been linked to heart disease and colorectal cancer. In a 2014 study in Circulation: Heart Failure, researchers found that men who consumed the most processed red meat (about 2.5 ounces or more per day) had a 28 percent higher risk of heart failure than men who ate the least red meat. Try this recipe for Lightened-Up Chicken and Fig Sandwiches by Abbey Sharp, RD, owner of Abbey's Kitchen Inc. Roasted chicken breasts are layered with spinach, sliced fig and goat cheese and topped with a balsamic reduction. CALORIES: 460.
Recipe #5: Peanut Butter S'mores Bars
While brownies and chocolate-chip cookies are practically picnic staples, consider adding this recipe for Peanut Butter S'mores Bars to your repertoire. OK, they're not exactly a health food, but they have a number of ingredients that elevate their nutrition status. Jenny Shea Rawn, M.S., M.P.H., RD, a Massachusetts-based registered dietitian, packed these bars with oats and whole-wheat flour for added fiber. "Greek yogurt and peanut butter keep the bars moist and add a boost of protein for staying power," Rawn adds. CALORIES: 143.
Recipe #6: Whole-Grain Carrot Cake Muffins
Instead of the usual cake and cupcakes, Heather Mason, M.S., RD, nutritionist and blogger at Nutty Nutrition and Fitness, recommends this recipe for carrot cake muffins. "These decadent whole-grain muffins have less than half the calories of a slice of traditional carrot cake, and they are free of refined sugar," says Mason. The recipe uses white whole-wheat flour, which looks and tastes similar to white flour but still has the fiber benefits of a whole grain. To sweeten them, she uses maple syrup, unsweetened applesauce and pineapple. Top the treats with a light cream cheese glaze. CALORIES: 185.
Food-Safety Tip #1: Be Mindful of Heat and Moisture
Foodborne illness, commonly called "food poisoning," peaks in the summer for two main reasons. First, the weather creates the perfect environment for the bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Bacteria multiply most rapidly in warm and humid weather, particularly when it's between 90 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Second, people are outdoors more often, flocking to picnics, barbecues and campsites. These locations typically don't have food-safety essentials like hand-washing facilities and refrigeration. Watch the weather forecast, and be especially mindful of food safety when you're outdoors on very hot and humid days.
Food-Safety Tip #2: Clean and Prepare Your Cooler
Before you pack an insulated cooler, be sure it's cleaned properly. Wash with warm water and mild soap for most hard-sided coolers, and rinse and dry thoroughly. If your cooler has a drain plug, store it with the plug open to allow moisture to escape; a dry cooler is less likely to harbor bacteria. Pack food straight from your fridge into the cooler right before you leave, and add enough ice or gel packs to fill the cooler to the top.
Food-Safety Tip #3: Take Two Coolers
To avoid foodborne illness, keep food out of the temperature "danger zone" -- between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit -- where bacteria multiply rapidly. One easy way to keep food cold enough is to use two coolers: one for beverages and the other for perishables like potato salad and sandwiches. People will open and close the drink cooler all day, allowing the cold air to escape. That's not a big deal for drinks -- but it is for perishable foods. Only open the food cooler when it's time to eat or cook in order to keep it out of the temperature "danger zone." Items that don't require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.
Food-Safety Tip #4: Keep Your Cooler Cold Enough
A well-packed cooler won't mean much if the ice melts quickly. When you're ready to leave home, keep the cooler inside the air-conditioned car, not stashed in the trunk. At the picnic spot, store it out of direct sunlight. When it's time to eat, create a makeshift refrigerator: Fill a big bowl with ice and put smaller bowls of cold food on top. To play it safe, use a basic food thermometer to monitor the temperature of perishable dishes. Don't let food stay in the "danger zone" between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours (or one hour if it's above 90 degrees Fahrenheit). Remember: "When in doubt, throw it out."
Food-Safety Tip #5: Keep Hands Clean On the Go
Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important things you can do to avoid getting sick and spreading germs. Before you handle food -- and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets -- wash your hands. It's seems like a no-brainer, but it can be easy to forget when you're surrounded by friends and family. Ideally, you would be able to wash your hands with running water and soap. If that's not doable, alcohol-based sanitizers that are at least 60 percent alcohol are your best bet. Since they're not as effective when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, use a disposable wet towelette first and follow up with the sanitizer.
Food-Safety Tip #6: Grill Safer Steaks and Burgers
Don't simply slap meat on the grill. Cooking meat at high temps can lead to the formation of compounds that may increase the risk of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Fortunately, a few precautions can limit your exposure. To prep the meat, trim visible fat and use a marinade. (Research shows that marinating meat an significantly reduce HCA formation.) When it's time to grill, avoid placing meat directly on an open flame, and flip it often -- about once a minute, recommends McKenzie Hall, RD, co-founder of NourishRDs.com. Before serving, trim off any heavily charred portions. Follow these guidelines for any type of meat, including sausages, hotdogs, beef or turkey burgers, steaks, chicken and fish.
Fitness Tip #1: Take Advantage of the Outdoors
"It's easy to sit and graze at the picnic table or park yourself in the shade all day at your next summer barbecue," says Jim White, RD, ACSM, exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "but getting up from the table and walking around may have more health benefits than you think." When you're picnicking outside, take advantage of the beautiful weather and open space. Stand. Play. Run around. At the very least, look around and enjoy the greenery instead of napping: research shows that observing nature lowers stress and may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Fitness Tip #2: Socialize While Standing
Once the meal is over, stand and mingle. "Standing, rather than sitting, while visiting with friends and family at an outdoor picnic can increase energy, tone muscles, improve posture and boost your metabolism," says Jim White, RD, ACSM. White recommends breaking up sitting time with light activity like walking or playing catch. It's especially helpful after eating, when light activity can help control your post-meal blood sugar levels, advises White.
Fitness Tip #3: Splash Around
Is there a pool or lake at your barbecue spot? Hop in! "Swimming is a low-impact, whole-body exercise that puts less stress on your joints and muscles while still improving endurance, cardiovascular health and flexibility," White says. If the kids want to splash around, assign an adult to be a designated "water watcher" whose sole duty is to keep an eye on the children. Drowning happens quickly, so the watcher shouldn't text, read or talk on a cell phone.
Fitness Tip #4: Play Games
"Some friendly competition never hurt anyone," White jokes. Think ultimate frisbee, relay races with a water balloon toss, three-legged races, bean bag toss, catch and wheelbarrow races. While they may seem like child's play, White says they're a great way to work a variety of muscle groups while having fun. If you're at a kid-friendly event, be a healthy role model for the little ones by getting some exercise. "This is a great opportunity for families to bond, build confidence and work as a team," White says. "In addition to helping your waistline, some of these simple backyard games may help improve your endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular health," he adds.
Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic
What Do YOU Think?
Will you try any of these healthier swaps? What games do you play during picnics and barbecues? Did any of the food-safety tips surprise you?
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