Tips for a Healthy Summer Picnic


As summer brings warm days and later evenings, many of us head outdoors for good fun and food. Whether you’re hosting a backyard cookout, or planning a picnic on the go, be sure to fuel your family with summertime meals that are both nutritious and safe.

Precautions for picnicking during a pandemic

Although summer 2020 is heating up, unfortunately there’s no playbook for picnicking during a pandemic. Keeping activities within your own household—and to your own backyard—is likely the safest option; in which case most of the tips on this page will still apply (in context of general practices for food safety, nutrition, and wellness during COVID-19). If your household ventures to a public park or a beach, you can still minimize risk by washing your hands, wearing your masks, and keeping a safe distance from others.

Because risk of infection increases with prolonged exposure to those from other households, additional precautions will be necessary if opening up your gathering to guests. Earlier this year, Dr. Erin Bromage shared some helpful tips for a “safer pandemic Memorial Day,” most of which will be relevant to any summertime gathering. From planning the guest list to cleaning up, here is a summary of some key points to consider:

  • Keep the guest list small. The more households you interact with, the higher the risk for infection.
  • Stay outdoors. While being outside presents a lower risk than gathering indoors, it’s still important to wear masks and maintain a safe distance from guests from other households. Spacing chairs, dining areas, or picnic blankets further apart may help encourage safer distancing.
  • Create a hand-washing station. Hand sanitizer is a start, but if you have an outdoor faucet or hose, provide soap and paper towels for guests to wash and dry their hands (using the paper towel to turn off the tap).
  • B.Y.O…everything. Along with beverages, consider requesting that guests bring their own coolers, ice, and food to avoid sharing. This especially means no shared finger foods. One exception is food that will be grilled, though it should be served directly off the grill onto a person’s plate. If you have food delivered from a restaurant, provide tables or spaces to keep for each household separated.
  • Contact-free cleanup. Provide garbage and recycling bins outside so everyone can dispose of their own trash. Although we typically encourage reusable plates, utensils, and cutlery, consider using disposable (ideally biodegradable) products so the host doesn’t have to wash used dishes.
  • Plan for bathroom use. Create an obstacle-free path directly to the bathroom, minimizing touch points along the way. Provide paper towels and ask guests to use them to turn off faucets after hand washing, to open and close doors, etc.

Best Picnic Eats

If you plan to bring food that will remain outdoors for several hours, choose foods that won’t wilt, melt, or spoil easily in the heat. Good choices are fresh firm vegetables (raw or cooked), chopped fruit, whole grains, pasta salad, beans, and trail mix! Here are some additional ideas to inspire your picnic basket or cookout spread:

  • Make vegetable kabobs with raw or lightly grilled cubed zucchini and summer squash, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and mushrooms. Pair with heat-friendly dips such as salsa, pesto, hummus, or baba ganoush (pureed eggplant).
  • Crunchy Roasted Chickpeas make a flavorful high-fiber protein-packed snack.
  • Slice peaches, mango, melon, strawberries, and pineapple, or any other combination of fruit to create a brightly-colored fruit salad. Or, finely dice the fruit and sprinkle with cinnamon, lime juice, and lime zest to create a fruit salsa. Serve on top of mini brown rice cakes.
  • Consider going meatless with plant proteins that hold up well in the heat like beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, or tempeh. These can be mixed into salads, grain dishes, and casseroles.
  • While soft high-moisture cheeses can spoil, firm lower moisture cheeses like cheddar or parmigiana reggiano are good alternatives. For a savory-sweet dessert, serve thin cheese wedges with walnuts or shelled pistachios and dried fruit like figs, apricots, cherries, mango, or pineapple.

Check out these other picnic-friendly (and portable!) ideas:




  • strawberry mint infused waterSkip the usual beverage haul that involves lugging a heavy cooler filled with ice and individual drink bottles or cans. To reduce waste and lighten the load, have everyone carry their own reusable insulated water bottles. If refills are needed, bring a jug filled with ice water or one of these refreshing naturally sugar-free healthy beverage recipes.

A Healthier Grill

Hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausages are popular choices for grill food but rank low in healthfulness. They are linked with an increased risk of colorectal and stomach cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. Along with high amounts of sodium, processed meat contains added nitrates and heme iron (a type of iron found only in animal foods) and are usually cooked with very high heat, all of which can produce cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). During grilling, the fat from rich cuts of meat tends to drip into the flames, producing more smoke and carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. To reduce your exposure to these elements:

  • Avoid breathing in smoke produced from the grill.
  • Try grilling fish, or lean poultry trimmed of any visible fat, veggie burgers, and a range of veggies. These recipes are great for grilling:
  • Reduce your grill time: fish, vegetables, and veggie burgers cook quickly. Poultry or meat can be cut into small chunks for kebobs.
  • Try using a marinade, which may reduce the production of carcinogens. Some research suggests specific ingredients for marinades such as the acid from lemon or vinegars, or herbs with antioxidant properties like rosemary, garlic, and thyme.
  • If serving meat, some other suggestions include:
    • Avoid charring meat, or remove any charred parts before eating.
    • Wrapping the meat in foil, which can speed cooking time and protect it from smoke.

Video: Dr. Guy Crosby grills some miso marinated salmon, and shares his tips for a healthy cookout.

Food Safety

Cases of foodborne illness tend to spike in the summer. There are several reasons. One is that harmful bacteria thrive in warm humid temperatures. The danger zone is between 40-140°F when bacteria can double in number in about 20 minutes, and even faster between 90-100°F. Another potential safety hazard is preparing and serving meals outdoors with unwashed hands or on contaminated surfaces. Bring sanitizer to use before and after eating, after using a restroom, after handling pets, and after changing diapers.

Although common fare at picnics, reconsider bringing the highly perishable foods listed below. If you can prevent food from spoiling in warm weather, there is less food to throw out and less waste. If you must bring perishable items, surround them with ice packs and store in a shady spot. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, discard perishable foods that have been left at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is higher than 90°F).

  • Dishes or dips made with dairy (butter, cream, cream cheese, or other soft cheeses)
  • Mayonnaise-containing dishes like salads (potato, chicken, tuna, egg) and deviled eggs

basil rosemary and other herbs

Don’t be shy in seasoning your food with herbs and spices. Not only do they infuse diverse flavors into your dish and offer beneficial plant chemicals called polyphenols (these are also abundant in some fruits, vegetables, and teas), but research has demonstrated the antimicrobial properties of certain herbs and spices. Garlic, onion, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, tarragon, rosemary, and cloves have been shown to prevent the growth of and even kill some bacteria including strains of E. coli, salmonella, and streptococcus. However, the exact amount of herbs and spices needed in food to produce an antibacterial effect as well as its form (as extracts, essential oils, dried vs. fresh, etc.) is conflicting, so do not rely on herbs and spices alone for food safety!

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