Inspired Picnics and Healthy Grills
by Marlaina Donato
Nothing defines the summer season quite like firing up the grill or escaping with a picnic basket to a favorite hideaway. From luscious fruits to gorgeous greens, enjoying a meal outdoors inspires us to eat what is in season and invites us to sip the moment. Most of all, it gives us special time with loved ones or with ourselves.
Ashley English, of Candler, North Carolina, author of A Year of Picnics: Recipes for Dining Well in the Great Outdoors, sees picnics as a delicious excuse to eat healthy and in sync with the seasons. “No matter what time of year you’re picnicking, there’s always going to be something ripe and in season to showcase. We all know that foods eaten at their peak time of ripeness simply taste better, so use your summertime picnic as an opportunity to bite into a ripe watermelon or your autumn picnic as the ideal time to bake an apple crisp.”
Thinking outside the box can jazz up the ordinary. English sings the praises of picnicking not only in woodlands and on beaches, but on rooftops. Being open to different times of the day welcomes a shift in mood. “I’m particularly fond of breakfast picnics. They’re an excellent way to clear your head and get motivated, as they’re an activity fully engaging all of the senses. Twilight picnics are another favorite. As the sun begins to set, the light is less harsh and the mood outdoors becomes decidedly quieter. I find picnics during this time of day to be especially relaxing,” says English.
Simple tasks like washing salad greens or whipping up a quick hummus dip the night before a picnic can save considerable time. Traditional picnic baskets are not required, and English recommends vintage suitcases, wooden crates or a backpack, especially if the picnic destination involves an uphill trek. She also emphasizes simplicity: “While a lavish spread with myriad options is quite fun, a simple picnic can be equally enjoyable. A grazing board to-go is quite easy. Pack up a medley of fruits, veggies, charcuterie or cheeses, crackers, spreads and pickles and a little something sweet, and you’ve got all you need to create a memorable meal outdoors.”
Robyn Lindars, of Fort Myers, Florida, author The Healthy Electric Smoker Cookbook: 100 Recipes with All-Natural Ingredients and Fewer Carbs, says, “I love grilled veggies paired with goat cheese and fresh herbs on French or Italian bread. You can add capicola or just stick to veggies for tasty sandwiches that do well in a cooler.”
Grilling “adds a ton of flavor to food without needing to add additional fat or calories. Cooking over fire is also the oldest method of cooking,” says Lindars. Happily, the health risks associated with barbequing meat over hot coals can be reduced by using flavorful marinades or opting to go vegan.
Reducing temperature decreases carcinogenic compounds associated with grilling meats and can be best accomplished by waiting until charcoal turns to embers or turning the gas grill down a notch or two. Grilling further from the flame on an elevated rack is also a good option. Citrusy or balsamic vinegar-based marinades naturally minimize toxic potential by reducing the formation of unhealthy compounds, studies show.
“You are what you eat and what you eat was eating. Opt for the highest-quality protein possible—grass-fed beef, organic, humanely raised protein,” suggests Lindars. “Make your own marinades and rubs to avoid ingredients like soybean oil and corn syrup. You can easily make your own with simple ingredients like olive oil, fresh herbs, vinegars, sea salt and spices. Fresh rosemary, lemon zest, juice, sea salt, pepper and garlic with a splash of olive oil makes for an amazing marinade, and can even be paired with grass-fed butter to put on chicken. A basic rub of smoked paprika, sea salt, fresh ground pepper and dash of garlic powder is great on just about anything.”
Marlaina Donato is the author of several books and a recording artist. Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.