Plan a healthy picnic

May 20, 2011 at 2:22 p.m. ET

Meals seem to almost always taste better when eaten in the great outdoors, and a little fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for body and spirit. When planning a picnic, don’t let the health benefits stop at your daily dose of vitamin D. Instead, skip the fried chicken and make a few simple swaps for a healthier outside adventure.

Healthy picnic

1Keep it simple

Plan ahead so you can relax and enjoy the time with your family and friends. Choose dishes that you can make and take without lots of additional work once you reach your destination. Make a quick checklist that includes all of the non-food items you'll need to take along with the basket or cooler. Think past the plates and cutlery, and don't forget these five essentials: a soft, comfy blanket; bug spray; sunscreen; wet wipes; and a trash bag.

2Keep it cool

Be sure to pack plenty of ice to keep lunch meat and salads cool. When planning your menu, it is important to stay conscientious about food safety, remaining aware of how long food will be out and at what temperature. Opt for the cooler and avoid transporting food in the trunk. Picnic baskets are adorable, but use them to transport the non-perishable items. If there's room, pack your cooler in the air-conditioned car. Keep yourself cool during the day by taking frozen water bottles. Acting as double-agents, they will keep your food cool before you eat and will cool you off after a long day outside.

3Keep it delicious

Making healthy ingredient choices is the key to providing a healthy outdoor feast. Start your menu planning at the farmer's market. Local produce is often organic and exposed to less preservatives and pesticides. When picking up cold cuts, check the ingredients and choose an additive free product like Hormel Natural Choice lunch meat, a healthier alternative because it does not have added preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors, nitrites or nitrates. Here are a few healthy substitutions for more traditional favorites:

3Chips & dip

Instead of chips and dip made from sour cream or mayonnaise, try sliced jicama sticks with this slightly spicy avocado and white bean dip.


Many summer fruits work well in a more savory salad, so instead of serving a glob of chopped cabbage in a heavy dressing, branch out with a summer strawberry salad with fresh mint and balsamic.

3Potato salad

For a potato salad that ranks lower on the glycemic index, causing less of a spike in your blood sugar, try using sweet potatoes instead. If you really want to cut the fat, try this easy, Thai-inspired sweet potato salad.

3Sub sandwiches

A popular picnic choice, many sub sandwiches are so bread and dressing laden that you can barely taste the fillings that you were craving; not to mention that a little time in the cooler can often lead to a soggy and not-so-appealing main course. Instead of going for the standard sub, try making a platter of pinwheels. Something different and delicious, they can be made up to a day ahead of time in a variety of flavor combinations.

4Keep it fun

A picnic is more than just a meal outside. It is time to have fun and enjoy your surroundings. Work some good, old-fashioned cardio into your picnic time by planning a few activities for the day. It can be as simple as packing a Frisbee or soccer ball, or opt for something a little more creative like a park scavenger hunt or a homemade obstacle course.

More picnic recipes, ideas & inspiration:

Summer picnic recipes & tips
Andrea Immer Robinson picnic recipes & wine pairings
Fun summer party foods
Healthy sandwich recipes