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Create family meal memories with picnics

Prairie Fare: Eating together as a family has many physical, mental and emotional health benefits

I always looked forward to picnics when I was a child.

We would visit friends who lived on lakes or, sometimes, we went to a park.

Getting ready for our picnic was quite a production because we had salads, fruit, meat, fresh buns, potatoes and dessert. Homemade lemonade was in a gallon-sized thermos container.

We didn’t have a grill in those days. The meat and potatoes were cooked in cast iron pans on a camp stove, with my dad as the chef.

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My mother was very food safety savvy. Everything was packed in coolers with ice, and meat was packed in a separate cooler from ready-to-eat foods. I learned early about safe food handling, and I didn’t realize it at the time.

I liked to lie on the lounger chair with green webbing. When I leaned back too far, usually on purpose, it would collapse. I felt like an alligator had me in its jaws, so I would lie folded up in the chair until someone rescued me. I liked the attention.

Fortunately, the chair didn’t have any teeth.

The food always tasted better in the outdoors with the breeze blowing cool air from the lake.

July is a perfect time to create happy memories as you enjoy seasonal foods in an outdoor environment.

For the past 18 months, we in the Family and Community Wellness programs at NDSU Extension have been promoting family meals through “The Family Table” project. We based our programming on published research, which shows the long-term influence of families eating together on various aspects of physical, mental and emotional health.

On average, experts say to aim for four or five meals per week with most family members present. Eating together promotes family unity and a place that is safe and secure in a sometimes confusing world.

Children get very busy as they grow older, so be flexible in your timing for family mealtimes. Meals can be eaten together anywhere, any time, and they still “count.” Try a family breakfast, evening snack or a picnic in a nearby park or your backyard.

The menu doesn’t have to be a gourmet feast, but be sure to put away electronics, turn off the TV and turn on the conversation.

Teens who eat more meals with their families are less likely to become depressed, use illegal drugs, abuse alcohol, smoke cigarettes, develop eating disorders or become pregnant.

Children who eat more meals together are more likely to do well in school and score well on achievement tests. At the family table, children have the opportunity to practise their language skills and learn new vocabulary.

Eating together more often also promotes better nutrition. Children who enjoy more family meals eat more fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy, and they eat fewer fried foods and soft drinks. This adds up to a diet that has more calcium, iron, fibre, and vitamins A, C, E and folate.

Make some memories with picnics for all the right reasons. Consider these nutrition and food safety tips:

  • Plan your menu to be colourful, with all the food groups: vegetables, fruit, grain, protein and dairy or other calcium source.
  • Check out the seasonal fresh produce available from farmers’ markets, gardens and grocery shelves.
  • Be sure to keep perishable foods chilled during transportation and at the picnic site. Transport food in the passenger area instead of the trunk, and keep coolers in the shade. Use blocks of ice or frozen gel packs. Remember that perishable food, including cut fruit, salads and meat, should spend no more than one hour at temperatures of 90 F or above.
  • If you do not have a way to keep foods cold, bring non-perishable foods such as peanut butter sandwiches, chips, pretzels, whole fruit, trail mix or dried fruit.
  • Be sure to check your destination to learn if it has a safe drinking water source. If not, bring your own clean water. Bring moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning your hands.
  • If you plan to grill meat, be sure to bring a food thermometer to check doneness. Steaks and pork chops should reach an internal temperature of 145 F, followed by a three-minute rest time. Hamburgers should reach 160 F, and chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165 F.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Be sure to bring a clean plate to the grill to retrieve cooked food so raw juices on the original plate do not contaminate the cooked food.

Tomatoes and fresh basil are “in season” in many backyard gardens. Here’s a fun recipe that children can help assemble for a picnic. Eating food on a stick always is fun.


Caprese Salad on a Stick

  • 36 cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 18 small part-skim fresh mozzarella cheese balls (or 1-inch squares of mozzarella cheese)
  • 36 fresh basil leaves
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 tsp. balsamic vinegar

On 18 small wooden skewers, thread in order: one tomato, one basil leaf, one mozzarella cheese ball or square, one basil leaf and one tomato. Mix together oil and vinegar, and lightly drizzle over skewers. Refrigerate until serving.

Makes nine servings, two skewers per serving. Each serving has 160 calories, 12 grams (g) fat, 9 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 0 g fibre and 240 milligrams sodium.

Tomatoes and fresh basil are in season in many gardens.
photo: Skitterphoto/Pixabay

About the author

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Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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