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Pack tasty nutrition into your picnic basket

Holding Picnic Basket
Add fresh fruits and vegetables for a nutritious and delicious picnic.Elea Dumas / PictureArts

Picnics are a wonderful part of summer, but the foods that make up traditional picnic fare are rarely in step with good nutrition. With some updating, however, picnics can be delicious and nutritious.

Almost every picnic seems to feature potato or pasta salad — or both. Just a half-cup of either of these salads is packed with 180 to 260 calories and seven to 16 grams of fat. If you take a substantial portion of one, or a small amount of several salads, you can easily end up with almost a meal’s worth of fat and calories from these dishes alone.

Bread or rolls are usually part of a picnic as well. Unfortunately, refined versions are far more common than the more nutritious whole-grain breads.

Put a new twist on potato or pasta salad by substituting chopped vegetables for some of the higher-calorie potatoes or pasta. This is a great way to work an additional serving of vegetables into a meal, providing antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals. Using whole-grain pasta instead of the traditional refined versions also improves nutritional value. Limit fat content by using reduced-fat dressing or mayonnaise, or changing the proportions of oil and vinegar in a homemade dressing.

Plan ahead
When you plan your picnic, think about how many different vegetable and fruit dishes you have compared with starchy dishes like potatoes, breads, rice and pasta. Grain products are nutritious, especially if they’re whole grain, but many picnics are overly laden with starchy foods and low on fruits and vegetables. Add trays of raw fruit or vegetables, and experiment with different vegetable salads for variety and good nutrition. If you like to grill, load the grill with vegetables to bring out great flavor.

Gelatin dishes, with or without fruit and whipped topping, are another picnic standard. They generally supply 80 to 120 calories in a half-cup serving, most of it sugar. If you want a sweet dish, serve fruit. Depending on what you choose, the calories will be the same or lower, and you’ll be getting fiber, vitamins and protective phytochemicals as well. You can serve fruit plain, or combine several favorites and pour a little juice over them to make a fruit salad.

Most picnics include meat, either grilled or in sandwiches. Choosing lean types is a smart move. The intense heat of grilling can produce carcinogens in animal proteins, so keep your portion to the size of a deck of cards. To reduce risk, lower the temperature, flip the meat frequently, and avoid burning or charring it. Marinating may also help reduce the amount of carcinogens formed.

Sweet moderation
What’s a picnic without dessert? Healthy eating can include some foods that don’t supply much nutrition. But the picnic favorite of pie with ice cream and whipped cream is three desserts posing as one. Instead, have a dish of fruit with ice cream or whipped cream, or place just a dollop of whipped cream on plain pie.

A standard serving for brownies, a picnic staple, is a two-inch square, which supplies 100 to 150 calories. Cut a pan of brownies into two-inch square portions and let those who want more take two. Smaller portions will help picnickers who are watching their calories avoid the challenge of trying to stop halfway through a brownie that is too large.

The irony of picnics is that they are usually held at the height of the fresh fruit and vegetable season, but these nutrient-rich foods are often the smallest part of the meal. An updated picnic can have all the traditional foods — in moderate portions —while also including more of the season’s bountiful produce.