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By Stacy Baca
From baseball game tailgates to a blanket by the river, few culinary excursions evoke the image of family, friends, and laughter as much as a good ol’ American picnic. Like the landscape of America, from sea to field or mountain-top, there is a picnic to suit every fancy. And, yes, picnics can even be fancy — very fancy! Picnics have enticed the likes of renowned chef James Beard and date back to the era of European kings. But if fancy isn’t your thing, picnics can be as no-fuss as calling upon the spirit of Colonel Sanders.
Despite the plethora of picnic options, many still envision the red-checkered tablecloth spread atop a lush lawn. The quintessential American picnic offers centerpieces of fried chicken, barbeque, or hot dogs. Mounds of potato salad, coleslaw, deviled eggs, macaroni salad and potato chips fill generous bowls. And don’t forget that slab of apple pie!
Though this hearty fare may be the apple of our eye, the rest of our bodies (barring our taste buds, of course) may not agree. It’s easy to see that this kind of abundance can be far from healthy and, for those who have been affected by breast cancer, eating well is fundamental to recovery and maintaining our best possible health. Widely, though some studies refute it, researchers agree that a diet low in fat and high in fiber can decrease the risk of breast cancer (1), as well as reduce the risk of recurrence (2). Upping your intake of whole grains and fresh produce, along with limiting high-fat foods, is your best path to achieving this healthy diet.
Yet, foregoing the time honored tradition of grazing on goodies while surrounded by natural beauty would be, well, one sandwich short of a picnic! With summer’s bounty and long, lazy evenings, it’s simple to imagine a picnic that nourishes both our souls and our bodies.
First to mind, lest you might as well be noshing at your own kitchen table, is to visualize the setting. Imagine Claude Monet’s sun- drenched depiction of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (that’s Luncheon on the Grass, for most of us) or the deep, wooded forest in the painting of the same name by Edouard Manét.
Now that you’re historically primed, think about your ideal setting: It should inspire the mood you wish to conjure. An impromptu celebration of home and family is perfect on the front lawn. A need for reflection and stillness nods near a brook under an evergreen canopy. For fun, book collectors take note of Nika Hazleton’s The Picnic Book (1969, New York, Antheneum), a handbook of interesting settings and picnic themes ranging from “Paying Back an Obligation Picnic” to “A Picnic for the Lovers of Yesteryear.” Or if a simple picnic in the park is what you’ve ordered, be sure to bring the whiffle ball set and Frisbee. Breathe in the smell of mossy trees (and citronella candles). Hum to the sound of crickets or your favorite iPod playlist. Oh, and perhaps most important to the setting is the people with whom you surround yourself. Children who make you giggle. Friends who philosophize. A loved-one who won’t breathe a word at all, just take it all in with you. The perfect setting is one dish that a great picnic cannot be without.
You Can Dish it Out!
And speaking of dishes, no matter a nibble or a platter, food makes our picnic sing! If traditional fare is what you’re after, try making easy substitutions to traditional dishes. It’s simpler than you think to incorporate low fat and high fiber.
Try oven-fried chicken recipes that use low-fat or non-fat milk, buttermilk, or yogurt for marinating. Choose egg whites for coating and olive oil for oven-frying. Breading can be transformed by using recipes that mix corn cereal, whole grain crackers, or whole wheat flour along with seasonings for a crisp, delicious crunch.
Potato and pasta salads are transformed. Simply leave skins on potatoes. Replace refined, white pasta with whole grain, brown rice, or quinoa pasta to increase fiber and nutrition. Layer fresh vegetables like celery, green beans, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, and spinach or kale. Select recipes that call for low-fat dressings, mayonnaise, yogurt, sour cream, or olive oil paired with fresh herbs or lemon for flavor. And don’t forget that punch of protein! Nearly any pasta or potato salad can be completed with lean tuna, grilled salmon, beans, or diced turkey.
Barbeque sandwiches don’t lose their spunk when choosing shredded chicken over high-fat meat. Add sumptuous vegetables to the mix like red, green, or yellow bell peppers. Choose whole grain buns and top with tomatoes and lettuce, or low fat coleslaw, adding dimension and fiber!
And speaking of low-fat coleslaw… Naturally high in fiber because it uses raw vegetables, the change comes in the dressing. Experiment with Asian-style recipes that forego mayonnaise and use rice vinegar and sesame oil as their base. If you are a coleslaw traditionalist, the easy substitution of low-fat or no-fat mayo, sour cream, or yogurt still gives slaw that creamy texture.
Hot dog varieties are easy to find in nearly any local grocer. Ranging from turkey to tofu, hot dogs can be served on whole grain buns and delightfully topped (again) with low-fat coleslaw or “through the garden,” a term meaning: load it up with veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and pickles.
Deviled eggs are not so devilish if made with non-fat cottage cheese, or the essential low-fat or non-fat mayonnaise, yogurt, or sour cream. Finely diced bell peppers or celery add texture and flavor, as well as fiber. And, if you really want to wow your taste buds, chop deviled eggs into an “egg salad” and serve on Belgian endive, Bibb lettuce leaves, or celery stalks.
As for the “pièce de résistance,” pie… berry crisps are wonderful, delectable alternatives to pie. Use honey or orange juice as a sweetener, preserving the natural berry flavor. Whole grains, such as rolled oats and whole wheat flour, in the crispy topping, combined with cinnamon or pie seasonings will leave you never missing the crust. Don’t forget buttery substitutes that use olive oil or other low fat options that still provide that unmistakable flavor.
Keep the Big Picture In Mind
Picnics are about simplicity and balance. We merge our love of nature and personal connections with our desire for nourishing foods. We eat a little, we play a little, and we lounge a little. Be certain to maintain that harmony by selecting balanced food options.
Control portions by serving skewers of lean meat and veggies.
Choose balanced portions of whole grains, protein, and produce, even presenting them small jelly jars, Bento boxes, or colorful “Chinese take-out” boxes, available at many craft stores.
Ask friends to join in creating the evening by asking everyone to bring a dish, even provide them with ecofriendly picnic boxes and supplies to pack, like the urban-styled picnic boxes from Boxsal.
Take time to graze, eating small portions throughout the leisurely afternoon, perhaps choosing to snack on small plates of fresh, grilled veggies; broiled shrimp; a variety of marinated olives; fresh berries dotted with squares of dark chocolate or sliced melon drizzled with honey and mint.
Follow these easy suggestions and your picnic, as well as your body and spirit, will be nothing less than the picture of health!
(1) (Baghurst PA, Rohan TE. (1994) High-fiber diets and reduced risk of breast cancer. Int J of Cancer, 1994 Jan 15; 56(2): 17 3-6)
(2) (Chlebowski RT, Blackburn GL, et al. (2006) Dietary fat reduction and breast cancer outcome: interim efficacy results from the Women’s Intervention Nutrition Study. J of National Cancer Institute, Dec 20, 2006; 98(24):1767-76.)
Stacy Baca, OTR/L is a health and wellness writer who has combined her 17 years of experience as an occupational therapist with her talent for writing, to serve various communities and publications.