Nutrition Column – Tips for Perfect Picnics

Summertime is picnic time, whether in the backyard, at the neighborhood park, on a lake or in the mountains. Picnics can be elaborate affairs or simple spur of the moment outings. Regardless, a little pre-planning can make the outing much more enjoyable.

Great picnics don’t just happen; they take some planning and organization. Once at the picnic site, the smallest detail, like forgetting the bottle opener or permit to use the park, may put a damper on an otherwise enjoyable event. Don’t trust your memory. Make a list of what you need to bring. Once you find a list that works, store it with your picnic supplies for easy reference.

Unless you have access to good facilities or all the supplies of a self-contained caterer, it’s best to keep your picnic menu simple. Include a protein source, fruit and/or vegetable and bread or grain product. If your picnic site has grilling facilities, frozen hamburger patties or frozen chicken pieces available at many grocery stores are convenient. For the no-cook picnic, check out the deli meats and cheeses at your neighborhood supermarket.

Salads available at supermarket delis are convenient for last-minute picnics. Make sure the salad looks fresh and is kept well chilled on ice. Some supermarkets offer salad bars where you can dish up a vegetable salad or container of fruit. Fresh, whole fruit generally packs well to picnics. Be sure apples and grapes are well washed. Oranges and bananas come with their own removable peels.

Beverages are a must in Colorado’s dry climate. For a convenient source of ice and water, fill a clean plastic milk container three-fourths full of water. Screw the cap on tightly and freeze. The container makes a great ice pack and provides cool drinking water as the ice melts.  

Take safety on your picnic. A clean tablecloth, disposable washcloths and roll of paper towels should be on your essentials list. If your menu includes perishable foods, be sure they are kept hot or cold, not in between. If your picnic cooler will not keep foods at refrigerator temperatures (40 degrees F or below) until you’re ready to eat, choose less perishable ingredients such as peanut butter, jelly, salami, pressed luncheon meats and hard cheeses for sandwich fixings. Take mayonnaise and mustard in individual packets to spread on hard rolls, tortillas or bread. Round out your picnic menu with fresh or dried fruit, raw vegetables, chips and cookies for dessert.

Don’t forget the insect repellent and sun screen. A repellent containing DEET is recommended to help ward off mosquitoes that might carry West Nile virus. Apply the sun screen first, then the insect repellent, following product directions. Avoid spraying repellent at your eyes and face or wearing it under your clothing.

Once you’re through eating, put leftovers back in the ice chest right away. Make sure there’s enough ice in the chest to keep leftovers cold and safe until you can get them home and into the refrigerator again. If not, it’s wiser not to save perishable items.

Finally, be a good citizen. Public parks, picnic grounds and playgrounds are for all to enjoy. Good citizens put trash, food scraps and cartons into waste receptacles that are provided. If none are provided, pack your trash out with you and take it home for disposal.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension