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how to build an easy and health picnic

Fresh air and sunshine can make good food taste that much better. And a dinner under the moon and stars spices up most any gathering.

Whether it’s on the back patio, out in a park, or by a lake, picking an ideal spot is the easy part. When it comes to the menu, however, too often outdoor dining involves uninspired dishes — store-bought salads, greasy fried chicken, ready-made snacks — as well as coolers filled with soda, and wasteful, throwaway plates and utensils.

We think outdoor dining deserves an update. So here’s a fresh spread of alternative ways to create the perfect alfresco meal. These easy-to-prepare dishes are healthy, portable, and downright beautiful — just right for satisfying your summer appetite.

Quick & Easy

  • Green and Fruit Salads:  Layer salad ingredients in canning jars with the dressing on the bottom, then shake before serving to mix and dress the salad.
  • Main-Dish Salads:  Hollow out tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, or other “stuff-able” veggie containers, then fill with hearty salads (you can often pop the veggie tops back on for transport).
  • Alternatives to Chips: Slice carrots, cucumbers, radishes, and other veggies thinly on a mandoline and store in ice water to keep them crisp. For a delectable kale-chip recipe, see “How to Cook Kale“.
  • Taco Bar:  It’s easy to prep the fixings for traditional tacos and let your guests assemble as they like. For a fun twist on tacos, try the Korean BBQ Pork Cabbage Wraps (see recipe below).
  • Good Drinks:  Instead of soda, try iced green tea, fresh-squeezed lemonade, water with fresh herbs like mint or lemon balm, or water with berries, citrus, or cucumber slices. Freeze lemonade or other refreshing drinks in canning jars. They will work as ice packs in your cooler and then be ready to enjoy as slushies — and there’s no need for extra glasses. (Find inspiration for mocktails, including sangria, at “Summer Mocktails“.)

Build a Smorgasbord

If you don’t have much time for meal prep, try the smorgasbord approach. These sturdy foods hold up well in summer heat.

a Smorgasbord of food

  • Roasted vegetables: They’re great at room temperature and wonderful sprinkled over a salad or used as a taco filling.
  • Smoked or cured meats and fish: Salami, ham, smoked fish, and sausages are safe, easy outdoor food options. When possible, select wild or grassfed meats without added MSG, artificial flavorings, colors, or preservatives.
  • Hard cheeses: Parmesan, manchego, aged cheddar, Gouda, and wax-wrapped cheeses travel better and won’t get as melty in warm weather as softer cheeses.
  • Crackers: Look for sturdy crackers, crisps, and flatbreads made from whole grains, rice, and seeds (remember to include some gluten-free options). Choose varieties that will hold up under transport and humidity, and that are less likely to break under load.
  • Olives and pickles: Marinated vegetables travel well and don’t require refrigeration to hold their texture.
  • Hearty greens: Kale, collard greens, spinach, and arugula are great for outdoor saladsbecause they don’t wilt as quickly as delicate lettuces.
  • Nuts and dried fruits: A satisfying alternative to sugary, gooey desserts, these go nicely with dark chocolate.

Korean BBQ Pork Cabbage Wraps

Korean tacos are popping up at restaurants and food trucks around the country. This recipe skips the flour tortillas in favor of a wrap of fresh cabbage leaves or other sturdy greens. 

Korean BBQ wraps

Makes 6 servings •  Prep and cook time 30 minutes (plus 1 hour for marinating)

  • ¼cup sake or mirin rice wine
  • 2 tbs. tamari
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbs. grated fresh gingerroot
  • 1 tbs. Asian chili garlic sauce
  • 1 tbs. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 pork tenderloin, about3/4 lb., sliced thin
  • ¼ cup rice-wine vinegar
  • 2 tbs. honey
  • 1 cucumber, sliced thin
  • 6 radishes, sliced thin
  • 1 tbs. sesame oil or coconut oil
  • 3 green onions, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 12 Napa or green cabbage leaves
  • 2 cups shredded bok choy
  1. Mix the sake, tamari, garlic, gingerroot, chili garlic sauce, and toasted sesame oil in a medium bowl. Add the pork slices; marinate for at least one hour or overnight.
  2. Prepare a marinade by mixing together the rice-wine vinegar and honey.
  3. Place cucumber and radishes in separate bowls and pour half of the marinade over each. (You can marinate the veggies together if you wish, but the color from the radishes will stain the cucumbers.)
  4. Heat the sesame oil in a large skillet and stir-fry the pork, removed from marinade, with the green onions, turning to cook thoroughly.
  5. Assemble the tacos by filling the cabbage leaves with pork and topping with the marinated vegetables and shredded bok choy.

Zucchini Pinwheel Frittata

These frittatas can be baked the night before and enjoyed at room temperature or chilled.


Makes 12 servings •  Prep and cook time 60 minutes

  • 6 small or medium zucchini (about 1 1/2 lbs.), each cut lengthwise into 4 slices about ¼ inch thick
  • ½ tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup minced sun-dried tomatoes
  • ¼ cup minced Greek kalamata olives, or an olive assortment
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 green onion, minced
  • 16 oz. whole-milk or dairy-free ricotta cheese
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Arrange the zucchini slices on a lightly oiled sheet pan and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Brush a 12-cup muffin tin with olive oil.
  4. When the zucchini slices are tender enough to be easily bendable, remove them from the oven, allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then line each muffin cup with a slice of zucchini.
  5. Mix the sun-dried tomatoes, olives, basil, green onion, ricotta cheese, and eggs in a medium bowl until well blended.
  6. Pour into each muffin cup and then twirl a slice of the remaining zucchini into each muffin cup, arranging it like a pinwheel.
  7. Bake the muffins for 20 to 30 minutes until just cooked.
  8. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before removing from muffin cups; cool completely before chilling.

Oven-“Fried” Chicken

Fried chicken is a picnic classic, and this oven-baked version is a nice, nongreasy option. The crispy, gluten-free crust seals in the heat and moisture of the chicken, which reheats well the next day. If you want to spice up your chicken, add a teaspoon of hot-pepper sauce to the buttermilk and more cayenne pepper to the crumb mixture.


Makes 4 to 6 servings •  Prep and cook time 60 minutes (plus two to four hours for marinating)

  • 1 fryer chicken, cut into pieces, skin on, bone in
  • ½ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
  • Butter, coconut oil, or ghee
  • 1 cup quinoa flakes
  • ½ cup almond flour
  • 2 tbs. maple sugar or coconut sugar
  • 2 ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • ¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • ⅛ tsp. turmeric
  1. Place the chicken pieces in a large bowl with the buttermilk.
  2. Cover, refrigerate, and allow to soak for two to four hours.
  3. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper brushed with butter, coconut oil, or ghee.
  4. Pulse the quinoa flakes, almond flour, sugar, and seasonings together in a food processor.
  5. Remove the chicken pieces from the buttermilk and roll in the crumb mixture to coat. Arrange the chicken pieces on the prepared baking sheet, and bake until the chicken is cooked through and the crust is golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.
  6. Allow the chicken to rest before serving, about 10 to 15 minutes.
  7. Serve immediately or, if you’re taking it to a picnic, layer a sheet of parchment paper over heavy-duty aluminum foil, and wrap the chicken inside to seal in the heat.

Tandoori Chicken Skewers


Makes 8 servings ⋅ Hands-on prep time 20 minutes (plus one to two hours for marinating, and overnight to chill)


  • 1 lb. chicken breasts and thighs, boneless and skinless, cut into 2-inch cubes

Tandoori Marinade

  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. coconut oil or sesame oil
  1. Mix the yogurt, ginger, garlic, curry powder, and salt together in a medium bowl until smooth. Toss the chicken cubes with the marinade and refrigerate for one to two hours, but no longer.
  2. Brush a baking pan (or grill pan or grill) with coconut oil, and broil or grill the chicken until browned, about three to five minutes on each side depending on thickness of the chicken and heat. Make sure the chicken is cooked through, and allow to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
  3. The chicken can be cooked the day before serving.

Veggies for the Skewers

  • 8 ounces spinach leaves
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled into “stripes,” and sliced ¼ inch thick
  • 12 radishes, cut in half
  • 16 cherry tomatoes


  1. Alternate the cooked, chilled chicken pieces with the raw veggies on skewers.
  2. Keep chilled until ready to eat.
  3. Serve with minted yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce

  • 1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 2 tbs. chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tbs. minced green onion
  • Pinch of salt and cayenne pepper


  1. Mix all ingredients together until smooth.
  2. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Easy-Prep Picnic Planning

Are you taking your alfresco meal to a picnic destination? Make it as stress-free as possible by preparing in advance, so you don’t have to worry about details on the day of the meal and can enjoy the event as much as everyone else.

3-plus days ahead:

  • Plan your menu.
  • Make a list of groceries and items for packing and serving.
  • Find a cooler and a large basket or sturdy reusable shopping bags for transport.
  • Collect containers and food-wrapping materials: glass jars, insulated containers, ice-cube trays, aluminum foil, and parchment paper.
  • Organize tableware: If you need disposables, consider compostable dishes and flatware made from sugarcane, or biodegradable dishes made from bamboo or palm leaves.

1 or 2 days ahead:

  • Buy groceries, beverages, and any other necessities.

1 day ahead:

  • Prep salads, veggies, and fruits, and pack in travel-ready containers.
  • To add flavor to drinks, make ice cubes with fruit or herbs frozen in ice tea, fresh-squeezed lemonade, or water.
  • Cook any meat that needs to chill overnight.
  • Pack serving ware and dishes.

Day of:

  • Cook hot items.
  • Pack up and go.

This article originally appeared as “Dining Alfresco” in the June 2015 issue of Experience Life.

Food photography by: Terry Brennan; Food styling by: Betsy Nelson

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