By Joe Wilkes
It’s almost summertime, which brings the incongruous collision of picnic season and swimsuit season. The weather’s perfect for hiking, camping, barbecuing, and days at the beach—lots of opportunities for outdoor exercise, but just as many opportunities to pig out at pool parties, luaus, outdoor festivals, and county fairs. Here are some foods to try avoiding during the dog days of summer, and some ideas for substitutions for picnic favorites.
- Fried chicken. It’s not the K or the C in KFC® that’s the problem; it’s the F, which stands for fried. And if you have any desire to stay slim this summer, it’s time to tell the Colonel you’re “kicking the bucket.” One extra-crispy KFC breast will run you 510 calories and 33 grams of fat, 7 of them saturated. That’s nearly three times the calories of a home-grilled skinless chicken breast, and almost 15 times as much fat—more than nine times the saturated fat alone. So you’re clearly better off cooking the chicken yourself. But if you’re grabbing something on the run, KFC does have a grilled chicken breast option, or you might want to visit the rotisserie case at your local supermarket—if you go there, try picking a chicken that’s not slathered in sugary barbecue sauce. Either way, make sure you remove the skin—that’s where you’ll find a lot of the fat and calories.
- Sandwiches. A picnic without sandwiches is like a picnic without ants. It just wouldn’t be the same. But of course the sandwich is only as good as its ingredients. If you’re using white bread, you’re just eating empty carbohydrates. Make sure you buy whole-grain bread, and that it has the word “whole” in the ingredient list. Wheat bread is essentially the same as white bread, only with a little molasses added for brown coloring. It’s nutritionally the same, if not worse. Whole wheat bread, on the other hand, contains the fiber and the vitamins you’re looking for. For lunch meat, try avoiding processed meats like bologna and salami. They’re packed with extra fat and sodium. And when buying unprocessed meats like turkey or roast beef, make sure they really are unprocessed. The makers of some brands of turkey grind up the skin and dark meat and then press it into lunch meat form, so you’re really getting as much fat and sodium as you’d get from bologna. Watch out for flavored turkey as well. Most of the time the secret ingredient is salt. If you want to be really healthy, buy a whole turkey breast from your market’s poultry section and roast it yourself, so you can control the amount of salt you add.
- Brats and burgers. It’s always great to fire up the grill and start cooking up a mess of meat. And the good news is that grilling is one of the healthiest ways to cook food. It adds tons of flavor without adding fat. Of course, the best thing to grill would be skinless chicken or fish, or vegetables. But if you’re craving a juicy burger or brat and a portobello burger just won’t do, there are still some decisions you can make to keep things on the lean side. For burgers, consider a leaner option than beef, like ground turkey or buffalo. But as always, check the label. Some ground turkey has as much fat as fatty ground beef. Ground turkey breast is usually much leaner than ground turkey that’s either dark meat or mixed dark and white meat. If you’ve decided to go ahead and make beef burgers, try to find some that has the lowest fat content available, less than 5 percent if possible. Ground sirloin is usually pretty close. If you can’t find a grind that’s low enough in fat, ask your butcher to grind a lean piece of chuck roast or top sirloin for you. In addition to being leaner, this will also reduce your chances of picking up food-borne illnesses like E. coli, since only one cow is involved in producing a steak, as opposed to potentially hundreds in ground beef. In fact, if you’re someone who likes to eat your burger rare, having the butcher grind a piece of meat for you is a must. Bratwurst is another delicious summer fave, but watch the fat and sodium content in these as well. The chicken, turkey, and even veggie versions of sausage sound like they’d be lighter, but they’re often just as fatty as the pork versions.
- Potato or macaroni salad. The culprit in these two picnic staples? Mayonnaise. At 5 grams of fat and more than 50 calories per tablespoon, mayonnaise is the element of these side dishes that’ll sidetrack your diet. But you can mitigate the damage somewhat by replacing the mayonnaise with nonfat yogurt, or you could try whirling some nonfat cottage cheese or nonfat ricotta cheese in a food processor to give it a creamier texture. You’ll get fewer calories and less fat—plus by going eggless, you’ll lessen your risk of salmonella. Another way to make potato salad healthier is to leave the skin on, as it contains the spud’s fiber and most of its vitamins. For macaroni salad, you can boost fiber by using whole-grain pasta. Make either salad tastier and better for you with heart-healthy olive oil, vinegar, and lots of veggies.
- Baked beans. Beans, beans, the musical fruit . . . well, you know the rest. Full of fiber and low in fat, beans are a great side dish that’ll help you feel full. What you want to watch out for is the sugar that’s added to most baked beans—sometimes a tablespoon or more in a cup. Try plain pinto beans, or my favorite, beans canned with jalapeños. Replace high-calorie sweet with low-calorie fire and you won’t even miss the sugar. Three-bean salad is another flavorful way to consume your legumes without a lot of added fat or sugar.
- Trail mix. Summer’s a great time for checking out nature, and it’s always great to bring along a healthy snack like trail mix. But check the ingredients. Some trail mixes, especially those that contain granola, can be loaded with fat and super-unhealthy hydrogenated oils. There are trail mixes on the market that have more fat than a large order of fast-food fries, so it’s definitely a “buyer beware” situation. Also check out how much sugar is in the trail mix or granola bars you take backpacking. Some bars aren’t much healthier than a Snickers®. If the ingredients in your trail mix include chocolate chips and marshmallows, you may not have made the healthiest choice. Try making your own trail mix with healthy unsweetened oats, nuts, and dried fruit. Or take along a couple of P90X® Peak Performance Protein Bars.
- Ice cream. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. And we’ll really be screaming when we try to stuff ourselves into our swimsuits after eating everyone’s favorite fatty, frosty indulgence. It’s hard to resist a cool ice cream cone on a hot summer day, and the tinkling of the ice cream truck bell can still make me want to bolt into the street. But depending on scoop size (which can average from 1/2 cup to a full cup or more), that scoop of vanilla can have upwards of 400 calories and as much as 25 grams of fat, up to 15 of them saturated. If you’re culinarily gifted, you might consider making your own sorbet. If not, check out some of the ones available on the market. Sorbets are usually low fat or nonfat, although they can still have tons of sugar. Try to find some that are mostly fruit. Speaking of fruit, for a healthy frozen treat, how about sticking some fruit in the freezer? Most fruits, especially berries, grapes, and bananas, freeze quite well. They’ll last longer and popping a few frozen grapes in your mouth can cool you off on a hot day and you’ll still get all the vitamins, fiber, and health benefits that a Creamsicle® just can’t provide.