The Perfect Spur-of-the-Moment Day Trip

The past two years of the pandemic have been difficult for us to navigate through – us or family members getting COVID, remote learning, job layoffs, financial strains, working from home, minimal social engagement with others, cancellation of activities we have always looked forward to like festivals, concerts, and travel, and confusion regarding mandates. Thankfully COVID today is not the threat it was two years ago. Classrooms reopened. People are able to find work, and many are returning to the workplace. Festivals and concerts are happening once again in 2022, and many are feeling more comfortable traveling.

Now that we are resuming many of our pre-COVID activities, inflation has come upon us, and our dollars are not going as far as they once did.  As we continue to make choices on resuming or modifying our activities, we may have fewer options than we’d like due to a tighter budget.

One pastime that requires no social distancing or extra money is going on a picnic. It can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. There’s something about eating outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine that is revitalizing. A meta-analysis listed several statistically significant health benefits of being surrounded by green space and street greenery including lower blood pressure and heart rate, decreased levels of inflammatory cortisol, and lower incidences of type II diabetes, stroke, and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.   Another study found spending as little as 20 minutes in an urban park helped our mental health too, giving us a positive feeling of restorativeness, vitality, mood, and creativity. Who can’t use that!

It all sounds good, but how do we get started? What to bring on your picnic depends on how simple or elaborate you want it to be, but here are some things to consider bringing:

If you want to keep it simple and spontaneous, going to a neighborhood park is a good choice.  All you need is a blanket to lay on the ground and finger foods.  A playground for the kids, a book for you, and you have an enjoyable afternoon.  Simple finger foods such as sliced veggies like celery, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, cucumbers, cauliflower, sugar snap peas, or radishes and a dip like hummus or a mushroom paté are great on a picnic.  You can also spread the hummus or paté on whole wheat bread or tortillas and fill with your favorite veggies listed above to make a sandwich or veggie roll-ups, or even stuff a whole wheat pita pocket with them.  Kids like making ants on a log – celery slices filled with peanut butter with raisins down the middle. Other finger foods and snacks can include trail mix, sliced apples with peanut butter, or air-popped popcorn.

Make it more elaborate by traveling to a nearby forest preserve or state park that offers activities including hiking, biking, kayaking or canoeing. Bring two or three dishes to eat, and you have a great getaway.

Salads are always a great dish for picnics. Bean salads like Hoppin’ John Salad or Mango and Black Bean Salad (recipes below) are easy to prepare and enjoyed by all. Tabouli salad (bulgar wheat or quinoa, diced cucumbers, parsley, mint, lemon juice, green onion, diced tomatoes, chopped mint) is a refreshing choice.  Make a lettuce salad with chopped romaine lettuce, baby organic spinach, watercress, and add toppings like raisins, or dried cranberries, chopped apple, pear, and walnuts and adding your favorite oil-free dressing.

If you’re looking for something heartier, bowls are a great option. They are versatile and can be assembled just before eating. Be creative (or clean out the refrigerator!) by adding any grain, bean, and vegetable in a bowl and drizzle with a dressing of your choice or you can mix 1 1/2 tablespoons tahini, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, and 2 teaspoons maple syrup per serving for a dressing to top your bowl creation.

Grilling is another option. Finding a park that has a grill will save you from hauling your grill to the park and having to let it cool down before packing it up to return home.  Using a grilling basket for bean burgers or grilled vegetables will prevent your food from falling through the grate.

Finish your meal with a cold slice of watermelon or a fruit salad.

When choosing what food to bring, think about what will keep well in warm weather. It is important to keep food at a safe temperature. According to the USDA, cold foods should be kept at 40º or colder. Hot foods should be kept at a temperature of 140º or warmer. The “danger zone” is 40º – 140º.  In this temperature range, bacteria causing food-borne illnesses can grow. Foods should not be kept between these temperatures for more than two hours.  If it is 90º or hotter outside, food should not be kept out for more than one hour.  Keeping cold food in the ice chest until the last minute will prevent any unpleasant consequences.  Here are two recipes to get you started.

Hoppin’ John Salad

1 can black-eyed peas, rinsed & drained *
1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 tomato, diced
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 – 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

Combine black-eyed peas, rice, tomato, green onions, celery, and parsley in a mixing bowl.  Add the lemon juice and garlic and toss.  If time permits, allow to chill 1-2 hours for the flavor to blend.
* If can’t find black-eyed peas, black beans or another bean can be substituted.

Recipe modified from The Cancer Survivor’s Guide, Foods That Help You Fight Back by Neal Barnard MD and Jennifer K. Reilly RD.

Mango and Black Bean Salad

1 mango, diced
1 tablespoon chopped parsley or cilantro
1 small red pepper, diced
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup canned black beans, drained & rinsed
Diced avocado (optional)
2 tablespoons lime juice

Put all ingredients but diced avocado in a bowl and stir to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving to allow flavors to blend. Top with avocado if desired.

Recipe modified from Kick the Diabetes Cookbook by Brenda Davis RD and Vesanto Melina, MS, RD.

Picnicking is a great getaway to spend quality time with family or friends. Little planning is required and is easy on the pocketbook. It also satisfies a yearning for a change of scenery. Simply gather basic picnic essentials, and you’re on your way!

Twohig-Bennett, C., Jones, A. (2018, Oct). The Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors: A Systematic Review and Analysis of Greenspace Exposure and Health Outcomes. PubMed Central. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030.

Tyrväinen, L.,Ojala, A, Korpela, K., Lanki, T., Tsunetsugu, A., Kagawa, T. (2014, June).The Influence of Urban Green Environments on Stress Relief Measures: A Field Experiment. Vol38. Journal of Psychology. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.12.005

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