Tips for the Perfect Picnic

No matter who your target population is, you’re likely to encourage your clients and audience to become more active, improve nutrient balance, and increase mindfulness while eating. Picnics are a great way to get others outside to be active before a more intuitive family meal. You can inspire clients to head out for a prepicnic hike, play volleyball on the beach before the meal, or go to a park and eat after playing games such as bocce, spike ball, or good ol’ tag!

Once everyone has worked up an appetite, it’s important to ensure no one ruins the fun with a cranky mood from a poorly balanced meal or with a food safety nightmare. Here are some tips to make sure your outdoor picnic remains fun and runs smoothly.

Use a Clean, Cold Cooler

  • Whether clients choose a picnic basket or heavy-duty cooler, remind them to clean it before and after each use to prevent foodborne illness.
  • Before eating, take the basket or cooler out of the car trunk since it can heat up more quickly in there. Instead, place it on the car floor out of direct sunlight.
  • Tell clients that perishable foods need to be stored at under 40° F. It may be a good idea to recommend clients place a refrigerator thermometer in the cooler.
  • Foods shouldn’t be left out for more than one hour if outdoor temperatures are above 80° F or for more than two hours if temperatures are under 80° F. Any perishable food that hasn’t been stored in its proper container inside a cold cooler should be thrown away.

Help Clients Build a Balanced Meal

Encourage clients to include a protein, a fiber-rich starch, and a produce serving. While sandwiches may be their first thought for a picnic, they can pose a food safety risk. Pasta salads with chicken also may be popular, but the mayonnaise (if used) and chicken increase the potential for foodborne illness, too.

Suggest these options to make the meal more exciting than the typical sandwich:

  • Prepare a salad with quinoa and choice vegetables dressed with a vinaigrette or pesto. When paired with marinated prebaked tofu, the meal provides plenty of fiber, protein, and nutrients.
  • Use whole grain pitas instead of bread. They enclose food more easily than bread, decreasing the chance of attracting bugs and critters to the group. Stuff pitas at the picnic, rather than beforehand, with tuna or salmon from presealed pouches as well as shredded carrots and sliced tomato. Add flavor and moisture with hummus or guacamole in lieu of mayonnaise.
  • Adding seasonal fruit to peanut butter sandwiches increases satiety compared with jelly due to the fiber and fluid content. Pack fruit in a container separate from the whole grain bread and peanut butter to assemble at the picnic. Include a side of roasted edamame to boost protein.

Keep Dessert Nutrient Dense and Clean

This doesn’t mean “clean” as in the popular eating pattern called “clean eating.” Chocolate, ice cream, and popsicles will melt, and most baked goods will get crumbly. So recommend clients choose fruit; it’s the perfect picnic dessert.

  • Make fruit kebabs ahead of time to prevent sticky fingers that result from reaching into a fruit bowl. Bring some unsweetened shredded coconut along to sprinkle on top to boost flavor.
  • Make whole grain or bean flour-based blueberry muffins sans the icing and crumble on top.
  • Cut a watermelon into sticks instead of traditional triangles. It may keep things a tad tidier.

Pack for Optimal Hydration

  • It’s best to overpack than underpack when it comes to outdoor hydration. In addition to water, flavored seltzers are picnic-perfect since they contribute flavor and fizz without added sugar.
  • Suggest clients keep a separate cooler for beverages since it will be open more often, letting in heat and possibly bacteria.
  • If it’s a really hot day and exercise is extended or intense, suggest clients keep electrolyte tabs or powders handy.

Make Clean-Up Easy

  • Packing hand wipes is important in case there’s no access to soap and water to wash hands before and after eating. Wipes also can be used to clean containers that may have gotten sticky while eating.
  • Paper towels or washable napkins are a must, not only to use during the meal but also to aid in wiping up spills.
  • Pack one bag for recycling and another for trash. This keeps used napkins, plates, and utensils out of the cooler and from contaminating any leftovers they may want to take home—provided they were kept at the proper temperature.

If clients’ picnic after more intense exercise, you can download fact sheets on “Eating on the Road” and “Eating for Recovery” for free as a member of the Academy’s Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group or for a small fee as a nonmember from For more tips on food safety, the Academy has you covered on their Home Food Safety page.

— Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a board-certified sports dietitian based in greater Philadelphia. As a speaker, consultant, nutrition coach, and brand ambassador, her expertise lies in performance nutrition, fitness club programming, and intuitive eating. Kelly often appears in the media, and her blog, Eat Real Live Well, translates science into practice with nutrition tips and recipes.

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