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Healthy Picnics

Posted 5/31/2018 by UHBlog

Eating outdoors is special, but make sure to pack up food in a way that keeps it – and you – safe in the heat. Talk to us about how to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Multi-generational family enjoying picnic in park together

Nothing’s better than a picnic in the summer. Whether you’re picnicking at the state park, beach or local playground, picnics are great fun for kids and adults.

“When I think of a healthy picnic, two things come to mind,” says clinical dietitian Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD. “One is nutritious foods and the other is food safety.”

With a little pre-planning, your picnic can be both nutritious and safe. From what to pack to safely storing and handling foods in the summer heat, Kramer offers these eight guidelines to ensure your picnic is perfect:

  1. Be cool. When you’re taking food out for longer periods of time on a summer day, keep it as cold as possible. Use ice, gel packs or containers of frozen water to pack around the food you place in a Styrofoam or other type of well-sealed cooler.
    Any food left out for more than two hours should be discarded. If the temperature is above 90 degrees F, throw away food that was left out one hour. If you do bring home any foods, look up and follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety guidelines so you know how long the picnic food is safe to keep.
  2. Leave hot food at home. Even if you make an award-winning lobster mac and cheese dish, it’s not worth being the person who caused everyone to get a “summer bug” – i.e., nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. Hot foods need to remain at 160 degrees F or warmer, which is difficult to maintain in pack-and-take containers.
    “You don’t want the temperature of any food to be between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F,” Kramer says. “That’s the zone when bacteria in food can thrive. Bring foods that can stay in the cooler until you’re ready to eat or cook them on the grill.”
  3. Pack foods from Choose MyPlate. Let the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Choose MyPlate” be your guide so you continue eating nutritiously.
    “Just because you’re going on a picnic, that doesn’t mean you should deviate from good nutrition,” says Kramer. “The MyPlate guidelines will help you keep foods interesting and simple.”
  4. Forego processed meats. Even though hot dogs and deli meats may seem like a picnic staple, they can be the source of listeria, which can grow even in refrigeration. Older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk of becoming sick with listeria.
    While some foods can be grilled to a safe internal temperature, you may want to rethink the protein options. For instance, bring cans of salmon or tuna and open and mix it once you’re ready to eat. Or, hard-boiled eggs, deviled eggs or egg salad, kept cold until time to eat, are good sources of protein. You can bring nuts and nut butters, too, which are less susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
  5. Wash all fruit and vegetables. With all the outbreaks of E. coli and other foodborne illnesses, Kramer recommends checking the USDA website to see if certain foods are listed.
    To encourage toddlers to try a variety of good foods, cut grapes and cherry tomatoes in half so they’re safe for them to chew and swallow. She also advises washing and scrubbing melons first before peeling them. Fruit and veggies can be cut up at home and stored in the cooler along with a hummus or yogurt dip until you’re ready to eat.
    “A trick to keep fruit like apples and pears from browning if you cut it up ahead of time is to soak cut slices or pieces in honey water for about 10 minutes,” she says. “I use a heaping tablespoon of honey to about three cups of water.”
  6. Decide on dairy products. As long as it’s kept cold, dairy products such as yogurt and hard cheeses are okay to bring. Soft cheeses, however, are more prone to harboring listeria.
  7. Stay hydrated, but not with soft drinks. Water, iced tea, sparkling water and/or infused or flavored water are better, thirst-quenching options than “liquid candy,” Kramer says.
  8. Don’t forget dessert! If you’ve eaten healthy foods beforehand, go ahead and indulge in a cookie, brownie or s’more. Or you can try the banana bar recipe (below) that was handed down by Kramer’s mother.

Kramer recently received the Ohio Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Recognized Dietitian of the Year Award. The recognition honors her clinical excellence, commitment to education and outreach and her demonstration of leadership and innovation in service to her patients, community and her profession.

Spicy Banana Bars (Family Favorite)

Preheat oven to 350° F (180° C)
Grease well and lightly flour 9 x 12 x 2 inch pan

Sift together:

  • 1 cup flour (at least half whole wheat)
  • ¾ cup sugar (or other sweetener)
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. baking soda
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¾ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp. allspice


  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1/3 cup mashed ripe banana
  • Beat with mixer for 2 minutes

Add and continue beating for 1 minute:

  • 1 unbeaten egg

Add dry ingredients alternately with:

  • ¼ cup milk (beginning and ending with dry ingredients)

Stir in:

  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans

Spread in pan and bake for 22-25 min. at 350° F. Ice with Lemon Frosting while still warm.

Lemon Frosting

Combine in saucepan:

  • 2 tbsp. melted butter
  • 2 tsp. hot water
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp. lemon zest

Sift in:

  • 1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
  • Thin with additional drops of hot water if needed.

Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD is a clinical dietitian, Rainbow Pediatric Practice, at the UH Rainbow Center for Women & Children. For an appointment, call 216-844-3971.

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