For a fun and healthy appetizer, skip the cheese and crackers and try edamame instead. The soybean, which East Asians have enjoyed as a source of protein for more than 2,000 years, has gained popularity in the United States and is a staple on most sushi restaurant menus. Though you can purchase edamame beans already shelled, for picnic purposes, it’s probably best to go with the variety still encased in their pods for portability. Bags of frozen edamame pods are available in the freezer section of most grocery stores near other vegetables, and cooking them is a breeze. Just drop the desired amount into boiling water for five minutes or so, drain, and cool. And the extra bonus? A half a cup of shucked beans comes in at just 100 calories and 2.5 grams of fat.
CHIPS AND DIPS
Skip the chips entirely and replace them with whole-wheat pita rounds, each of which has as few as 80 calories and 1 gram of fat. A fun way to serve these is to toast and cut them into small triangles. Raw veggies, including carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, also make a great crunchy chip alternative. For healthier dips, choose hummus, salsa or black bean varieties over queso, refried beans, or creamy, fatty dressings such as ranch.
If you have access to a grill at your picnic site, burgers are both easy to transport and quick to prepare and turn out to hungry companions. Consider alternate protein sources such as ground turkey, chicken or even veggie burgers. If you must use ground beef, look for a lean mix with 7 percent fat or less. I also add a can of lentils to a pound of ground beef when making the burgers – increases protein and fiber while further decreases fat. Great toppings include black bean and corn salsa, roasted peppers, grilled mushrooms.
When you’re picnicking in an area where there’s no grill on site, try picking up a roast chicken from your local grocery store to serve as a main dish. It’s just as convenient as picking up a bucket of fried chicken, but much healthier. Discard the skin and the roast chicken will pull off the bone easily!
Create a heart-smart, on-the-go deli for your picnic by packing lean proteins such turkey and chicken, low-fat cheeses, whole grain bread, and healthy fixings such as lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and bell peppers. Another option is to ditch the bread entirely and use the protein as an outer layer to create carb-free roll-ups, which can be secured with a toothpick or two. Try dressing sandwiches with mustard or salsa. Many deli counters offer healthier alternatives to prepackaged lunch meats.
Turn a tossed salad into a main dish by adding proteins such as beans — pinto, black or white — or a boneless, skinless chicken breast that you’ve baked and diced prior to leaving the house. If you prefer slaws, try swapping out cole slaw made with high-calorie mayonnaise for a broccoli slaw flavored with light vinaigrette instead.
PASTA AND POTATO SALADS
You can lighten up traditional recipes by replacing the starch with whole-wheat pasta, or healthy, alternative grains such as quinoa couscous or bulgur. To give your new dish some substance, steam and dice vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini and squash, and add them in generous amounts to create a 3-to-1 veggie-to-pasta (or grain) ratio. Flavor your side dish with light vinaigrettes instead. If potato salad is a must, look for a recipe that ditches regular potatoes and uses sweet potatoes instead for a boost of vitamin A. Substitute 1/2 of the mayonnaise with plain nonfat yogurt.
Complex carbohydrates such as grilled vegetables can make for a filling and healthy side dish. Try preparing a mix of grillable favorites, including summer squash, zucchini, peppers, onions and mushrooms, brushing them lightly with olive oil and seasoning them with pepper to taste. Slice up the veggies ahead of time for simplicity, and make clean-up a breeze by wrapping them up in foil before grilling. (I saw these ready-made at WalMart for a good deal too!) If you’re headed to a picnic destination that does not have grilling capabilities on site, no worries: Just roast the veggies in the oven beforehand and wrap them up to go. They’ll taste good cold, too.
For a refreshing summer treat, add some sliced strawberries along with fat-free whipped topping (keep the latter in the freezer, then transfer to the cooler as you’re leaving to give it time to defrost). Though you’ll need a cooler for this dessert to make sure the toppings stay fresh, keep the angel food cake stored separately so it doesn’t get wet and soggy before you’re ready to serve and enjoy.
Create a sweet and healthy kabob by cutting up a variety of fresh fruit, such as pineapple, apples, peaches, strawberries and bananas. Keep the chunks around cubic inch or less in size, and stack them on skewers, alternating among the different types of fruit as you go.
Creating a healthy picnic menu requires some advance planning, a few adjustments and maybe even a little creativity, but you and your guests can still enjoy a full and satisfying picnic experience without all the extra calories and fat. Your waistline and arteries will thank you.
AFTER THE PICNIC A NICE BRISK HIKE TO EXPLORE THE AREA IS A GREAT IDEA TOO!!