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Published May 31, 2013, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Plan ahead when packing up for a picnic

As a kid, packing for a picnic was the start of an exciting adventure on our way to a state park or lake setting. We loaded the old camp stove and coolers filled with a variety of foods and left early in the morning “before the heat.”

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

As a kid, packing for a picnic was the start of an exciting adventure on our way to a state park or lake setting. We loaded the old camp stove and coolers filled with a variety of foods and left early in the morning “before the heat.”

As I recall, our vehicle had no air conditioning. I thought driving down the highway with the windows wide open and our hair flying in the breeze was kind of fun. However, we were not always photo-ready by the time we arrived.

Back then, few people had portable grills, but many people had camp stoves or used the fire pits at the campground. For special events, such as the Fourth of July, we usually had a multicourse meal, including steak and sliced potatoes fried in a cast-iron pan on the camp stove. We would take a quick dip in the lake and then relax on lawn chairs in the sun before dinner. I remember the aroma of the cooking food and the leisurely meals very well.

Picnics have a long history and conjure up memories for people. The definition of what constitutes a picnic has changed through time. According to some food historians, picnics originally were more like “potlucks” where everyone brought a share of the food. By the 1860s, picnics became associated with the outdoors.

Early outdoor picnics were quite formal in some countries. If you were a member of the British upper class, you may have dined on linen-topped tables with servants waiting on you. You needed to dress formally for these meals.

Picnic menus have changed through time, too, but they typically included sandwiches, desserts and coffee or lemonade.

According to a 1904 cookbook, some of the suggested picnic menus are familiar today, including foods such as chicken sandwiches, deviled eggs and lemonade. Now, picnic menus can consist of almost anything from gourmet box lunches picked up at a restaurant to peanut butter sandwiches to burgers prepared on a portable grill.

Compared with our predecessors, we know a lot more about food safety and have better equipment to keep foods cold and safe. If you are thinking about enjoying an old-fashioned picnic, consider these tips:

• Plan your menu with safe food handling in mind. Be sure to keep high-moisture, high-protein foods such as meat, fish and poultry in zip-top bags or sealed containers in an ice-filled chest separate from ready-to-eat foods. If you are preparing hamburgers, shape the patties at home. If salads are on your menu, be sure to keep them in sealed containers on ice.

• Find out if there is running water at your picnic site for use in washing your hands, cleaning utensils and preparing food. If not, plan your menu accordingly or bring some water in gallon containers. Disposable hand wipes also help clean hands before eating.

• When packing food for your picnic, avoid cross-contamination. Place meat in leak-proof containers away from ready-to-eat foods such as buns and cookies. Avoid placing raw meat packages in the same containers with soda pop cans because the meat juices could get on the cans and travel to your mouth.

• Keep cold foods cold. On hot days (90 degrees and above), perishable food can be held safely on the serving table for no more than an hour.

• Bring your food thermometer. Cook foods to safe temperatures for quality and safety reasons. Burgers should reach an internal temperature of 160 F, chicken and other poultry should reach 165 F and beef steaks and pork chops should reach an internal temperature of 145 F.

• Abide by the campsite rules, and leave the picnic area clean for the next family.

For more information about nutrition, visit www.ndsu.edu/eatsmart.

Here’s an old standby picnic food recipe. Years ago, mayonnaise was made with raw eggs, which can carry salmonella bacteria.

Today’s mayonnaise is acidic and made with pasteurized eggs, making it rarely the culprit in foodborne illness outbreaks. Usually dirty hands, cross-contamination and improper storage temperatures lead to the issues associated with salads.

Old-Fashioned Potato Salad

3 medium potatoes, chopped

1 egg, hard-cooked and chopped

2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise

1/8 teaspoon pepper

½ tablespoon onion, chopped

¼ cup celery, chopped

Wash, peel and cube potatoes. Place potatoes in saucepan; add just enough water to cover. Cover and boil for about 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender but not mushy. Put egg in a pan with water to just cover. Bring to a boil, cover and turn off the heat. Let sit on the burner for 15 to 17 minutes. Remove from water and let cool. Peel and chop. While potatoes and egg are cooking, combine mayonnaise, pepper, onion and celery in a 3-quart salad bowl. Add cooled potatoes and egg. Stir just to blend. Serve. Refrigerate leftovers.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 170 calories, 4 g of fat, 5 g of protein, 29 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fiber and 80 mg of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., 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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