It's summertime and we are blessed with days filled with trips to the beach or museums to meet up with friends, and we're usually grabbing something to-go on our way to the destination. Every Sunday evening, everyone in our community in Coronado, Calif., loads their kids and a picnic into their red Radio Flyer wagon and heads to Concert in the Park. So when many of you lamented the challenges of packing a summer picnic, I heard you. The ant’s time as the biggest picnic woe is long gone — now we worry about packing healthy, delicious food that our kids will actually eat, while keeping the food in a temperature-safe zone, without spending too much time. Is that too much to ask? No. So here are four tips to help get you there:
The protein is the trickiest part of the meal because it often involves meat, which can be a challenge to keep in a safe temperature zone. My secret picnic weapon: non-meat protein. And by this, 99 percent of the time, I mean quinoa. Make a quinoa salad, subbing quinoa for rice, pasta or other grains. It is full of protein, fiber and complex carbs, and it will probably work in your favorite recipe (for inspiration, try my Quinoa Tabouli). Quinoa can be served chilled or at room temperature, making it my perfect picnic protein. My second non-meat protein insider secret: Use white beans and whole-grain pasta to make any pasta salad you like. Try a salad made with roasted veggies, feta and vinaigrette.
Keeping your food at the right temp (usually cold) can be a tall order for an ice pack that isn't huge and heavy. A great strategy is to include a few frozen food items that can thaw in your picnic basket. Pop a few wrapped slices of cheese (or string cheese sticks), or even thinly sliced chicken, into the freezer for an hour or two before packing. Or for dessert, bake, wrap and freeze my Black Bean Brownies or my Fruit and Veggie Mini Muffins, which thaw beautifully (and pack in a little extra protein and fiber — a bonus for "nibblers" like my twins).
3. Sometimes it's not the food you pack but what you pack it in
If your lifestyle means you take food on the go often, but you are sick of sandwiching it, then nirvana is only a good bento box away. The bento box singlehandedly turns traditionally, non-picnic food into perfect picnic food. Suddenly almost anything you want to eat can be to-go friendly. Of course there are also compartmentalized boxes, plastic lidded containers, reusable pouches (like Lunchskins), and the list goes on. Don’t overlook the impact of this tip! I spent one evening with a coupon at The Container Store and my life was never the same. I've found some fantastic containers at the dollar store and in big box dollar bins (right now I'm loving the cute thermal 1-liter drink jugs I bought a few weeks ago — for a buck — to use at my Alex's Lemonade Stand). They may not be as durable, but I can throw them away if needed, like if I am on a hike. (When do I hike? Turns out, never. Still, I like having the option.) Another fun idea: I love to layer complete meals into Mason jars (buy food-safe jars at craft stores with the 40-percent Sunday paper coupon), and each person just grabs one and a fork. (See my Picnic in a Jar, or layer in bean-filled Tuna Panzanella.) My picnic packaging philosophy: Get out the coolest containers I can find and the menu (almost) takes care of itself.
Our family goes to the beach or pool several times a week, and every Sunday we do our concert picnics. Yet for some reason, it was only last summer that I started to follow my diaper bag golden rule: Always stock it when coming back from an outing, not before heading to an outing. Now I keep a grab-and-go bag ready for any family activity we do frequently. For picnics, that means all the essentials are packed (in reusable bags): napkins, plates, silverware, a blanket, sweaters, wipes, one metal butter knife (which can cut surprisingly well), and (an unexpected item!) a small cutting board, which serves as a platter, plate, cup stabilizer (try balancing a paper cup of lemonade on grass), or even just a cutting board. The picnic bag (or basket) doesn't have to be fancy, just packed and ready. In fact, my picnic bag is a canvas Food Network tote. Perfect, right?
My final thought this week on the summer picnic: If you have little ones, consider eating at home before you go. Picnics are exciting and distracting for my kids, so I like the freedom in knowing that if they are too busy dancing to the '80s cover band rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" at the park to eat a full meal (which might have been the case with my kids this weekend), then at least I know they’ve eaten something healthy that day. Pressure's off — which is what summer is all about anyway.