Picnic Perfection

by in Food Network Chef, June 20th, 2013

Melissa d'Arabian's Picnic PerfectionIt’s summertime and we are blessed with days filled with trips to the beach or museums to meet up with friends, and we’re usually grabbing something to-go on our way to the destination. Every Sunday evening, everyone in our community in Coronado, Calif., loads their kids and a picnic into their red Radio Flyer wagon and heads to Concert in the Park. So when many of you lamented the challenges of packing a summer picnic, I heard you. The ant’s time as the biggest picnic woe is long gone — now we worry about packing healthy, delicious food that our kids will actually eat, while keeping the food in a temperature-safe zone, without spending too much time. Is that too much to ask? No. So here are four tips to help get you there:

1. Start with the protein
The protein is the trickiest part of the meal because it often involves meat, which can be a challenge to keep in a safe temperature zone. My secret picnic weapon: non-meat protein. And by this, 99 percent of the time, I mean quinoa. Make a quinoa salad, subbing quinoa for rice, pasta or other grains. It is full of protein, fiber and complex carbs, and it will probably work in your favorite recipe (for inspiration, try my Quinoa Tabouli). Quinoa can be served chilled or at room temperature, making it my perfect picnic protein. My second non-meat protein insider secret: Use white beans and whole-grain pasta to make any pasta salad you like. Try a salad made with roasted veggies, feta and vinaigrette.

Melissa and Philippe on a Picnic2. Help out that over-worked ice pack
Keeping your food at the right temp (usually cold) can be a tall order for an ice pack that isn’t huge and heavy. A great strategy is to include a few frozen food items that can thaw in your picnic basket. Pop a few wrapped slices of cheese (or string cheese sticks), or even thinly sliced chicken, into the freezer for an hour or two before packing. Or for dessert, bake, wrap and freeze my Black Bean Brownies or my Fruit and Veggie Mini Muffins, which thaw beautifully (and pack in a little extra protein and fiber — a bonus for “nibblers” like my twins).

3. Sometimes it’s not the food you pack but what you pack it in
If your lifestyle means you take food on the go often, but you are sick of sandwiching it, then nirvana is only a good bento box away. The bento box singlehandedly turns traditionally, non-picnic food into perfect picnic food. Suddenly almost anything you want to eat can be to-go friendly. Of course there are also compartmentalized boxes, plastic lidded containers, reusable pouches (like Lunchskins), and the list goes on. Don’t overlook the impact of this tip! I spent one evening with a coupon at The Container Store and my life was never the same. I’ve found some fantastic containers at the dollar store and in big box dollar bins (right now I’m loving the cute thermal 1-liter drink jugs I bought a few weeks ago — for a buck — to use at my Alex’s Lemonade Stand). They may not be as durable, but I can throw them away if needed, like if I am on a hike. (When do I hike? Turns out, never. Still, I like having the option.) Another fun idea: I love to layer complete meals into Mason jars (buy food-safe jars at craft stores with the 40-percent Sunday paper coupon), and each person just grabs one and a fork. (See my Picnic in a Jar, or layer in bean-filled Tuna Panzanella.) My picnic packaging philosophy: Get out the coolest containers I can find and the menu (almost) takes care of itself.

4. Take a lesson from years of diaper-bagging
Our family goes to the beach or pool several times a week, and every Sunday we do our concert picnics. Yet for some reason, it was only last summer that I started to follow my diaper bag golden rule: Always stock it when coming back from an outing, not before heading to an outing. Now I keep a grab-and-go bag ready for any family activity we do frequently. For picnics, that means all the essentials are packed (in reusable bags): napkins, plates, silverware, a blanket, sweaters, wipes, one metal butter knife (which can cut surprisingly well), and (an unexpected item!) a small cutting board, which serves as a platter, plate, cup stabilizer (try balancing a paper cup of lemonade on grass), or even just a cutting board. The picnic bag (or basket) doesn’t have to be fancy, just packed and ready. In fact, my picnic bag is a canvas Food Network tote. Perfect, right?

My final thought this week on the summer picnic: If you have little ones, consider eating at home before you go. Picnics are exciting and distracting for my kids, so I like the freedom in knowing that if they are too busy dancing to the ’80s cover band rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the park to eat a full meal (which might have been the case with my kids this weekend), then at least I know they’ve eaten something healthy that day. Pressure’s off — which is what summer is all about anyway.

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Comments (40)

  1. Joanie Stiner says:

    I am so upset your the Food Network for getting rid of Paula Deen. She is the network as far as I am concerned and she is so fun and entertaining. I always watch your show but might start thinking long and hard on that in the future. You can not tell me she is the only one that ever used that word. Shame on you!!!!!.

  2. Diane says:

    Very bad decision Food network! Cannot someone be forgiven? Are you going to check out every person that has a show? How about yourselves? She is one of my favorite chefs!! All the new shows you have which highlights a contest winner for the chef I don't watch. There are only a few that I love and she is the one I have enjoyed the longest!!! Where ever she goes I will follow.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I agree with every post so far. Paula Deen is the nicest and most entertaining chef you have on your network. I am not going to renew my Food Network magazine subscription if they do not hire her back. I will get her magazine instead. I have said things in the past I do not say now. god forbid you get punished for everything you have done or said in the past. Really stupid of Food Network. I have always wanted to meet Paula. I feel like she would be the kind of person you could just hug to pieces.

  4. Vinita says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with every post so far concerning the firing of Paula Deen. I started watching Food Network because of Paula. I record her programs each week, so I will not miss any single part of her shows. She may have made a poor choice years ago, but so have each of us. Thankfully we can learn from our mistakes and change how we speak and conduct ourselves. I feel you are making a huge mistake not only for Paula, but in the long run for your network. I personally (and apparently others) have lost a great deal of respect for the Food Network.

  5. Guest says:

    I for one will BOYCOT foodnetwork until you offer PAULA DEEN an APOLOGY You are unfair and it was an unjustified firing ADIDOS foodnetwork .

  6. Guest says:

    Bring her back , this is so stupid for something that was said so long ago.
    As for the lawsuit , what happened to innocent tell proven guilty.

  7. Diane says:

    I agree with all that has been said. Lets see into all of your backgrounds and see how many times you have said something inappropriate. Shame on all of you!!! You need to regroup and hire Paula back. And these people that are going overboard with PC language you all need to get a life. Remember the saying "sticks and stones will break your bone, but words can never hurt you! Turn the other cheek. Grow up and pay attention to your own life.

  8. Barbara Guckenheimer says:

    Really?? Really!????Food network is the one that should be apologizing!!!! All has been said in defense of Paula. I agree with all who have defended her. This was said many years ago and I don't care what the PC world is coming to, you, FN should be more loyal to one of your anchors!!!
    BA

  9. Sharon says:

    Come on, Food Network!!! Are you telling me none of your other chefs have ever said anything (..now remember, we're going back 30 years here…) off-color, or had a lawsuit brought up against them??? I want to know who among you network executives was so perfect they felt the right to condemn?????

  10. Donna says:

    I agree- She treats everyone on her shows with respect, is entertaining and informative- I am off the food network untill Paula returns…..

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