Summertime often means packing up the car for some outdoor fun. This might be heading to the beach, a nearby lake, or a picnic somewhere. Depending on the duration of the event, this usually includes taking along some food and beverages. Packing your own meals and snacks for the day means you are in total control of the options, but there are few considerations to think about as you decide what you are taking and how you plan to keep the foods at a safe temperature.
Many “to-go” foods are convenient, but they tend to fall into the less healthy category. In addition, these foods generally do not provide sustained fuel or nourishment for an active day. Rather than falling prey to processed foods, consider some quick and easy alternatives.
If the weather is hot, be sure to lean towards less perishable choices. You can also take a cooler, so foods remain at refrigerator temperature until you plan to eat them. Keep the cooler in the shade rather than in the hot car or full sun. If you are using ice as the coolant, add more as needed.
Some food possibilities that are relatively less perishable might be nuts, seeds, nut butter/seed butter spread on whole grain wraps/bread/pita/crackers, dried fruit, pop-top unsweetened applesauce or canned fruit, raw carrots, cherry/grape tomatoes, celery sticks, raw green beans/broccoli/cauliflower, grilled Brussels sprouts, whole grain crackers, healthy dry cereals (low sugar/high fiber), lite popcorn, baked whole grain or bean-based chips, apples, pears, plums, and grapes.
Examples of foods that do best in the cooler but are less concerning than highly perishable foods might be hard boiled eggs, hummus, low fat cheeses (like mozzarella sticks), cucumber sticks, raw pepper strips, salsa, peaches, nectarines, blueberries, pineapple, melon, strawberries, avocado, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Try to avoid taking deli meats, other meats, poultry, fish, seafood, and foods prepared with mayonnaise.
There are also some things you can do to make packed meals and snacks more creative and flavorful. Again, try to use food ingredients that are less perishable on a hot day. Think about the healthy food groups as you concoct delicious combinations. Don’t forget the many healthier spreads, condiments, and fresh herbs that can add some wonderful flavors and variety.
For example, you can take along some seasoned veggies for nibbling. Tasty options might be roasted or grilled asparagus, green beans, or marinated mushrooms. A zingy dressing for cooked and chilled green beans is a mix of scallions sautéed in olive oil, coarse mustard, and balsamic vinegar. Nuts and seeds can also be seasoned and roasted.
A delicious snack is mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and garlic with fresh thyme spread on crackers that have been topped with herbed goat cheese. Another might be slices of a whole grain baguette or whole grain crackers topped with hummus, a piece of fresh tomato, and a few leaves of cilantro.
Wraps make an easy grab-and-eat meal. Fillings might be hummus with black beans, grated carrot, halved cherry tomatoes; pesto with fresh spinach or arugula and white beans (or chicken but more perishable); rice and black beans with salsa and grated low fat cheese; fresh tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil; mustard, low fat cheese, and grilled vegetables; hummus, tomato and chopped fresh cilantro; herbed goat cheese, tomato, and sliced portobello mushroom.
Cold grain salads make a handy one-dish meal. Combine any cooked whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, farro, whole grain pasta, etc.), with combinations of vegetables (raw, steamed, grilled or roasted), a protein (beans, lentils, edamame, nuts, seeds, low fat cheese), and maybe some form of fruit (dried cranberries, raisins, figs, dates, berries, mango, peaches or nectarines, etc.). Then drizzle with a vinaigrette (raspberry, lime/cumin, lemon herb, mango habanero, Italian, etc.).
Many of these ideas can easily be created using leftovers from meals served earlier in the week. A great time-saver is to purposefully make extra food at dinner meals during the week, especially when using the grill, which can then be used for other meals throughout the week or weekend. Keep canned beans, frozen edamame, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and other less-perishable ingredients on hand to use as well.
Staying hydrated is hugely important on hot summer days. Children are especially vulnerable to dehydration for a number of reasons (less efficient cooling system, easily distracted by fun activities so tend to ignore thirst cues, etc.).
When it comes to beverages, water is by far the best choice. It can be flavored, carbonated, or have a squeeze of citrus or 100% juice but try to avoid sweetened beverages. Note that the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of artificial sweeteners by persons under 18 years of age.
Smoothies transported in temperature-controlled containers is another option. These can be made with combinations of healthier ingredients - assorted fruit, 100% juice, yogurt, various vegetables/greens, ground flaxseed, oats, peanut butter, etc. Kids tend to love fruit smoothies with a few mint leaves added to the mix.
So, make your summer outings fun, healthy, delicious, and safe. Pack some easy but healthy meal, snack, and beverage options with a plan to keep them at a safe temperature for the duration of the event.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).