How to make a healthy picnic for kids
With the days getting warmer, we’ve started having more days out – and this means picnic lunches. I love the way they’re a budget-friendly option for eating a tasty meal together, removing the need to stand in a queue or throw away sandwiches that you’ve forked out for. Once your kids have picked out the bits they liked, of course.
I also give my children packed lunchboxes during the week too. On Fridays, my eldest two eat a packed lunch at school, and one evening a week, they have a packed dinner because gymnastics class runs late.
Healthy foods to eat on a picnic
I often serve up a wholemeal or multigrain wrap with hummus and grated carrot. This is one of our favourite healthy fillings at the moment (with not a slice of ham in sight. Try reading my blog post: Is it time to ditch your child’s lunchbox ham sandwich). It also helps a pot of hummus to stretch further. Simply peel and grate two carrots, and then add a tablespoon or two of hummus and mix. Spread on the wrap.
(My fussy youngest one refuses this of course. He prefers cream cheese fillings for his sandwiches, though we’re still working on him.)
I also sometimes prepare couscous salad with cubed cheese, cucumber, peas and sweetcorn, mixed with a little olive oil.
There are always carrot and cucumber sticks, often pepper, sometimes a little pot of hummus for dipping, fruit and cubes of cheese.
So far so good, but I also offer the kids foods that I’m more uneasy about – like squeezy yoghurt or those cheese dip bread sticks – just because they’re so convenient.
Top tips on picnic foods from food experts
1. Think beyond the sandwich
Vary the breads, for example pitta, wraps and different grains, try offering a cheese scone, rice or couscous salad or even rice cakes or crackers. “Crackers are a fun alternative, and if you serve it with some kind of protein source like cheese to go with it, that should fill them up,” says registered paediatric dietitian Paula Hallam.
Tried and tested: This is always a popular snack with my kids, so it went down well.
2. Pasta salads
“I mix pasta and pesto with some olives, and grate cheese into it,” says Dr Frankie Phillips, a dietitian specialising in children’s food and a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
Paula gives her children tuna pasta mixed with a tiny bit of mayonnaise plus sweetcorn and/ or apple. “It sounds weird having the sweet apple with it, but it does go nicely together,” she says.
Tried and tested: The tuna pasta salad sounded like a great way to get more fish into my children, so I made this for our picnic at the weekend, mixing some Greek yoghurt in too to make the mayonnaise go further.
It was popular with the two kids who tried it, though they were wary of having the apple in the mix. But the grown-ups loved it. Would definitely serve this again.
3. Raw veg and fruit
Don’t forget to chop up some carrot, cucumbers, raw peppers, celery and any other veg that your child will crunch on.
If you have time, Paula suggests making a fun fruit kebab. “Try skewering fruit, like melon, on to a cocktail stick,” she says. “You can always chop off the end if it’s too sharp.”
Tried and tested: We’re big fans of chopped veg at picnics, so added pepper to the mix too. We managed to empty the box.
Yoghurt makes a great pudding for a picnic, and Paula recommends occasionally offering a bowl of natural yoghurt with chopped fresh or dried fruit to stir in.
But yoghurt can be hard to eat without a table and of course you’ve got to remember to pack spoons. This is where those super-handy squeezy yoghurts and tubes come in. But watch out – they can be very high in sugar.
“In the nutritional label of dairy products, sugar is listed under ‘carbohydrate, of which sugars’,” says Paula. “But this figure will seem confusingly high as it actually includes milk’s natural sugar, called lactose, which we know isn’t bad for your health.
“So for a more accurate picture, refer to the ingredients instead, which are listed in order of quantity. Avoid a yoghurt in which ‘sugar’ is named in the top two ingredients as it’s likely to be quite high in added sugar.
“Some don’t contain any added sugar, just fruit purée. This is great as it’s not just empty sugar, but offers extra nutrients too.”
Tried and tested: It was a struggle, but I did manage to find a squeezy tube which contained less sugar. But I don’t understand why you can get sugar-free yoghurts in pots, but not in tubes, which are aimed at children. Next time, I’m going to try the natural yoghurt and fruit plan.
5. Dried fruit
Raisins and other dried fruit stick to the teeth, so aren’t good for your child’s dental health, says Dr Phillips. “But if you serve them up as part of a meal, it’s okay. Ideally offer some chunks of cheese to eat afterwards to neutralise the effects of the sugar in the raisins.”
Tried and tested: Raisins and cheese. A winning combination as far as my kids are concerned.
6. Crisps and biscuits
Try keeping crisps and biscuits as a treat for a family picnic at the weekends rather than having them as a daily lunchbox expectation.
“It’s all about getting the most opportunities for better nutrition in the packed lunch,” says Dr Phillips. “Foods like biscuits and chocolate bars and crisps are not inherently bad food but by including them every day, you don’t have the opportunity to include other foods which give a greater range of nutrients.
“At the end of the day, you’ll get more nutrients from something like a flapjack bar, containing chopped nuts and apricots, than you would from a chocolate bar.”
Tried and tested: For a family picnic, my kids have a small packet of crisps but I don’t put them in their lunchboxes during the week.
Kids love dips, so try offering hummus with fruit, veg and bread sticks for dipping, says Paula. “If you’re going to serve the cheese dipper-style pots, look out for the ones with bread sticks, rather than the ones with crisps.”
She also suggests making mackerel pâté as a spread for crackers and a great way to serve up oily fish. “Blending it with cream cheese can make the strong flavours more palatable to kids,” she says.
Tried and tested: I avoided the cheese spread dippers and instead made the pâté for the picnic, hoping my kids would like it.
But while it was really popular with the four adults present, it was less successful with the children. Two out of the five kids at the picnic tried it, and of this pair, neither seemed particularly keen. But I’m hoping that if I serve this more regularly, the kids will get used to seeing it at picnics and might have another try. I’ll also add more cream cheese next time to produce a milder taste.
Recipe for smoked mackerel pâté
One 250g pack of smoked mackerel
100g cream cheese
½ lemon, zested and juiced
A small handful of parsley, chopped
Take the skin off the mackerel, break it into chunks and then pop the fish into a food processor. Add the cream cheese, lemon and parsley and blend to a smooth pâté. Taste and season as you think necessary.
I try to avoid serving junk food to my children but the odd thing does creep in – particularly at a family picnic. Crisps, anyone?
This is why I’ve decided to get behind Organix, which is launching the No Junk campaign. As the name suggests, it’s all about healthy food – and healthy children.
As parents, we’re all worried about the amount of salt, fat, sugar and artificial additives in our kids’ foods, and Organix is calling on the government and food industry to introduce tough controls.
I’ll be making sure my family go junk-food free for seven days – and then blogging about our experiences next week.
And I’ve already signed the online pledge: ‘I pledge to eat and feed my family only real ingredients I can recognise or spell.’