With summer now in full swing, many of us will be planning to escape the city with our families, trying to make the most of the sunshine, and boosting those all-important serotonin levels. Moderate amounts of sunshine help us regulate our mood, feel relaxed, and perhaps most important of all, allow us to get outside in the fresh air. Months of being cooped up indoors can leave us with what many refer to as ‘cabin-fever’, and while there is something quite enjoyable about cosy nights spent inside gathered around a roaring fire, by the time June comes around most of us are chomping at the bit to get out there and enjoy everything that summer has to offer.
For those of us with young children, a day out at the park or a trip to the seaside is an excellent way to keep the kids active and entertained, while also keeping the costs down. With no admission fees, often the most extravagant part of summer days spent in the park are mealtimes. Not only are the prices around popular outdoor venues artificially inflated during the summer months to make the most of the seasonal trade, but we can also often be left wondering what exactly is in the poor quality food we buy from the less than sanitary looking burger vans that adorn many a recreational area from June to August. If you find yourself in a situation where you wish to save even more money, whilst also feeding your loved ones something far more nourishing than heavily salted chips, meal prepping is going to be key to your success.
Keep cool and carry on
With so many options available at this time of year, your summer meal prep can be as tasty as it can be varied. There are a few things to be considered however before you start whipping up a storm in the kitchen the night before your day trip. Firstly, you should invest in a decent set of ice packs, and of course some sturdy meal prep containers. Summer lunches are often served cold, so plan accordingly. Keeping your potato salad cool and fresh should be a priority on a warm summer’s day, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that your mayonnaise-based sauce will be just fine sitting in the boot of a hot car for three hours. On the subject of salads, many of us make the mistake of mixing the fresh vegetables with dressing before leaving the house. This can result in a soggy mess when you come to open your cooler box at lunchtime. Instead, mix your sauce in advance, then take it with you in an airtight jar, ready to add to your meal when the time comes. While it is nice to have everything prepared in advance, sometimes it’s best to hold off on a few aspects of meal prep, if the result means that mealtimes are even tastier.
Using multi-compartment containers becomes especially useful in the summer, as the addition of some vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumber can also lead to other ingredients getting soggy over time if they are stored together. Rather than using a container for each family member’s meal, use them simply as individual compartments for each ingredient, turning lunchtime into a sort of ‘tapas-style’ affair, where everyone can grab the ingredients they like, and build their own lunch themselves. You can still chop your tomatoes and cucumber before setting out for the day, but storing them in separate compartments means that you don't have to worry about your pitta bread getting soggy on the journey.
Prep for convenience
As for actual meal ideas, the sky really is the limit. Just be aware that seafood and dairy-based sauces should be kept properly chilled right up until you are ready to eat (so take enough ice packs to keep conditions chilly in your cooler box). If you are going for the ‘tapas-esque’ style of picnic, choosing something that requires no cutlery is always a good option. Pitta bread stuffed with vegetables and grilled chicken, mini veggie falafel and hummus wraps, salmon parcels, or courgette and spinach fritters, will all travel well in containers whilst also being easy to dish out and eat. Dips with fresh cucumber or celery are great for snacks, whilst those of you who fancy something a little different might want to look into pasta Bolognese pie (yes, it does sound odd, it’s a surefire winner with the kids).
While you really can pack just about anything for your summer picnics, the three questions to ask yourself before you start preparing your containers are as follows:
- Will the food be easy to eat while in less than ideal dining conditions?
- Will the food still be in good condition when we need to eat?
- Am I packing the food in the correct manner?
If you are happy that each of these questions have been answered satisfactorily, you’re good to go.
Recipe tweaks can make all the difference
For a family of fussy eaters, finding the correct dish for the occasion doesn’t necessarily mean you need to stray too far from your usual cuisine either, sometimes it just requires a little thinking outside the box. Similar to the way the pasta Bolognese pie mentioned earlier is a slight twist on a tried and tested recipe, other dishes may just need a tweak or two to make them a more sensible option for outdoor dining. If pizza is a staple that your family loves, consider making a calzone-style pizza rather than the typical ‘open topped’ variant. If tuna salads are looked at particularly fondly in your tribe, using pita pockets as a sort of ‘food bowl’ to dish the vegetables and fish into will mean that you don’t need to bring any of those flimsy paper plates with you. If there is a dish your family adores but is difficult to eat outside of the dining room, simply tweak it in a way that keeps the integrity of the dish but dispenses with the intricacies of actually eating it.
When it comes to eating in difficult circumstances, historically popular dishes from all over the world are there to inspire you. From Indian samosas to Cornish pasties, people have always found novel ways to create dishes that are easy to eat when plates and cutlery are hard to come by. Perhaps it’s time to invent your own little ‘food-hack’, and share it with the world!
So for those of you heading out for picnics this summer, a little planning is all it takes to make sure your mealtimes are as enjoyable as the rest of the day. Get out there, enjoy the summer, and don’t forget to leave any of your great ideas for picnic meal preps in the comments below.