How to Pack a Healthier Picnic Basket

By Stephanie Watson @WatsonWriter
June 14, 2016

Lighten up your summertime excursion with a few simple food substitutions.

A warm, sunny day is the perfect time to load up your picnic basket and take your lunch out to the park or beach. When it comes to packing that basket, you have a lot of possible food choices, but not all of them are healthy. Fried chicken, sodas, and potato chips are all loaded with fat, calories, and sodium. With just a few easy substitutions, you can make your picnic as good for you as it is fun.


To build a healthier sandwich, start with a foundation of whole-grain bread. Look for the words “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain” on the package. Avoid breads with a lot of added salt, sugar, or high-fructose corn syrup. You can also buy whole-grain tortillas and make wraps. 

Once you have a solid base, fill your sandwich with leaner lunchmeats, like low-sodium turkey, roast beef, or sliced chicken. Or spread on a layer of hummus, which is high in protein. Add a topping that boosts nutrition even more, such as tomato slices, avocado, or salsa.

You don’t have to give up picnic staples like burgers, hot dogs – or even fried chicken. Just pick healthier versions. Serve turkey or veggie dogs and chicken or black bean burgers in place of meat. Roll skinless chicken breasts in whole-wheat cracker crumbs and bake instead of frying them.

Salads and side dishes

Packing a salad or healthy side dish is an easy way to add more vegetables to your picnic. Leave the chips home. Skip the traditional mayonnaise-based, carb-laden salads and sides like coleslaw and potato salad. Instead, build a salad from peak-of-season produce you find at your local farmer’s market. The freshest produce makes the most delicious salads. Chop up a mix of vegetables – red and green peppers, beans, kale, and broccoli – and toss them in balsamic vinegar and herbs. Combine fresh corn kernels with black beans. Toss tomato, red onion, and avocado in a light vinaigrette dressing. If you’re planning to cook out, also bring along good grilling vegetables like onions, Portobello mushrooms, corn on the cob, and zucchini. 

When choosing a dressing for your salad, keep an eye on not only the calorie and fat content but also the cream. Dairy-based dressings can quickly spoil outdoors. Look for ingredients like vinegar or citrus juice, which are lower in calories and less likely to go bad in the heat.


Sodas are one drink to keep out of your cooler. They’re not only full of sugar and calories, but the caffeine can make you go to the bathroom more and lead to dehydration out in the hot sun. Also avoid drinks that seem healthy but really aren’t, like lemonade or fruit punch made with very little real fruit juice but lots of added sugar. 

“The first way to keep an eye on health is to cut out store-bought beverages. They’re expensive, calorie-laden, loaded with sugar, and the bottles contribute to pollution,” says Georgia Chavent, MS, RD, director of nutrition and dietetics at the University of New Haven. Water is always the best beverage to take along. If you want more flavor, “Make your own beverages,” Chavent says. She recommends soaking tea bags in a quart of water. Add spearmint leaves, lemon, or honey to the pitcher while the bags steep, and you’ll have a flavorful iced tea to take with you.


Cookies, pies, and cakes might seem the obvious choices for dessert, but they’re not the healthiest ones. To satisfy your sweet tooth, make your own fruit kebabs by sliding strawberries, melon chunks, grapes, and banana slices onto wooden skewers. Or fill a platter with freshly sliced watermelon. No picnic would be complete without it! 

Keep safety in mind

Even the healthiest picnic can go bad if the food spoils and makes you sick. To keep food fresh outdoors, store it in an insulated cooler and keep it in the shade until you’re ready to eat. Don’t pack highly perishable items, like eggs, milk, and other dairy products. Ketchup, pickles, relish, and salsa make safer sandwich toppers than mayonnaise and cheese. 


June 14, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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