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AICR HealthTalk

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: I love picnics, but it seems that all the traditional favorites are so unhealthy. Is there a way to keep the fun parts and make the meal healthy, too?

A: Start by looking at the basic proportion of foods in the meal: how many different vegetable and fruit dishes are there compared to starchy dishes (like potatoes, breads, rice and pasta), meats and packaged snack foods? Grain products are nutritious, especially if they’re whole grain, but many picnics are over-laden with starchy foods and low on fruits and vegetables. Add trays of raw fruit or vegetables, and experiment with different vegetable salads for more variety. If you like to grill, load the grill with vegetables, which gives these nutritious, low-calorie foods great flavor. You can put a new twist on potato or pasta salad by substituting a variety of chopped vegetables for some of the potatoes or pasta.  This is a great way to work an additional serving of vegetables into a meal, while reducing calories and increasing nutrients.

Most picnics include meat or poultry, like fried chicken, grilled meat or cold cuts in sandwiches. If you’re contributing to the picnic fare, an easy option is the rotisserie chicken available at most supermarkets. You can also choose lean, unprocessed meats and keep your portion to deck-of-cards size. If there are multiple meat options, choose one and enjoy another some other time.

Healthy eating can include some desserts too. Have a dish of fruit salad with a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream. If brownies are a must-have, cut them in two-inch square pieces, which supply 100 to 150 calories each. That makes it easier for those who are watching calories. The irony of picnics is that, although they are held at the height of fresh fruit and vegetable season, these nutrient-rich foods are often the smallest part of the meal. An updated picnic can have all the traditional foods, but include more of the season’s bountiful produce.


The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed over $105 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF).

Published on 08/24/2015

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