Memorial Day Meals: Expert Tips for Packing a Healthy Picnic

A pile of cut watermelon sits on a picnic table.
(Image credit: Africa Studio/

Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer and perhaps the unofficial start of the outdoor eating season.

Whether it's done on a beach blanket, on a concert lawn or at a picnic table, food eaten at a picnic often seems to taste better. The combination of fresh air, sunshine and the outdoors can make a meal seem more festive and fun.

Picnics are appealing, especially to people in colder climates who don't get many chances to eat outside in nice weather and enjoy a slow, relaxing meal, and they could also bring back childhood memories, said Sara Haas, a dietitian and chef in Chicago and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Of course, a picnic might attract a few unwanted guests, including insects, wind, sand or bad weather, but because the picnic season is short in some places, it's worth contending with Mother Nature every now and then for an opportunity to dine alfresco.

So pack up the red-checkered tablecloth, coolers and picnic basket, and bring along family and friends. Here is some advice from two food and nutrition experts who suggest picnic-friendly foods that are easy to prepare, transport and eat outdoors as well as tips for a healthy picnic the whole gang can enjoy.

Picnic-friendly foods

At a picnic, people are looking for fun, grab-and-go munchies and finger foods, said Libby Mills, a nutrition and cooking coach in Philadelphia and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Dips fill the bill and are a popular choice for any gathering. Some good-for-you foods that make a good base for dips include hummus, puréed beans, guacamole, salsa and yogurt mixed with fresh herbs, Mills said. She suggested using celery, radishes, carrots, and asparagus as nutrient-packed dippers as well as getting creative and experimenting with some new or different seasonal vegetables.

Many people think of pasta salads as their go-to salad for picnics, Mills told Live Science. But she suggested ditching the pasta and replacing it with broccoli or cauliflower florets, and then adding chopped olives, tomatoes, fresh basil or even chopped artichokes and green, red or orange peppers to make a vibrant, colorful dish. For a healthy topping, use a light Italian dressing or a vinaigrette. 

For a healthy twist, experiment with whole-grain salads, Mills said. Studies have linked a diet high in whole grains to having less belly fat and even living longer.

Mills suggested using quinoa, bulgur or barley as a base for the salad. Then adding blanched green beans, grilled chicken breast and tossing it with some shallots. People can use olive oil, white wine vinegar and mustard for a dressing that's not too drippy for paper plates, Mills said.

Haas said she is also a fan of whole-grain salads, and recommended using wheat berry or bulgur, then adding sliced kale, spinach, tomatoes, or other vegetables that have been grilled, along with fresh herbs to it.

Mills recommended not adding dressing to a tossed salad until right before serving at the picnic, so greens don't get wilted and drippy.

Wrap sandwiches, filled with either turkey breast or tofu, are good picnic options because they can be pre-wrapped in wax paper making them easy to hold, Haas said. Mills also liked to recommend wraps, and encouraged people to be creative with the fillings they use, such as starting with a smear of hummus, then adding grated cheese, chopped cabbage, sliced apples and jicama to it.

Cheese trays are always a simple crowd-pleaser, but people should choose low-fat versions of cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, gouda or a feta spread, Haas said, or go for a low-moisture cheese, such as sharp cheddar, which has lots of flavor so people may need less of it to satisfy their taste buds. Pair the cheese with whole-grain crackers or pita chips.

Mills also recommended creating fruit kebabs by bringing pineapple chunks, strawberries, blueberries, grapes and melons, then allowing guests to build-their-own kebab. This can also be a chance to introduce something new and fun, like starfruit, she said. [6 Easy Ways to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables]

Haas suggested making cut-up fruits more kid-friendly by combining Greek yogurt, cinnamon and honey into a yummy dip.

Since people are often more active than usual at picnics, Mills suggested munching on a fiber-filled snack such as a homemade trail mix with wasabi peas, popcorn, a handful of chocolate chips and some almonds to round it out. Haas suggested creating a popcorn bar by allowing picnickers to flavor their own popcorn by sprinkling on grated cheese, fresh parsley or other herbs and seasonings.

For a healthy alternative to soda, Haas recommended packing sparkling waters and adding some fruit to each cup, such as strawberries or blueberries.

Food safety tips

People should definitely keep an eye out for food safety when planning a picnic. Here are some tips for keeping a picnic healthy:

  • Pack foods into coolers in reverse order of use, Mills said. For example, put beverages at the top or in a separate cooler because people will often be grabbing those first, and foods eaten later at the bottom. Use enough ice or ice packs to keep cooler temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius).
  • Put coolers in the air-conditioned back seat of the car and not in the trunk, which can heat up like an oven, Mills said. At the picnic, place coolers in the shade.
  • Don't let picnic foods sit out for more than two hours, Haas told Live Science. Set a timer on a phone or a watch to know when two hours are up, and then either put foods away or throw them away, she advised.
  • If the weather hits 90 degrees or above, no foods should sit out on the table for more than one hour, Mills said.
  • Take mayonnaise-based salads, such as potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad or tuna, out of the cooler at the last second before eating them, and set these salads inside a bowl of ice with plastic wrap over them to prevent attracting insects, Haas suggested. Or swap an oil-and-vinegar-based dressing for mayonnaise in potato salad, Mills said.
  • When outdoors, bring your own moist towelettes or sanitary wipes, soap and paper towels to keep hands clean, Mills said.
  • Visit for food safety tips as well as a downloadable app for any on-the-spot picnic pointers, Mills said.

Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.