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 for fried. And if you have any hope of staying slim this summer, it’s time to tell the Colonel you’re kicking the bucket. One extra-crispy breast will run you 460 calories and 28 grams of fat, 8 of them saturated. That’s almost three times the calories of a grilled, skinless breast and almost ten times as much fat. So clearly, you’re better off cooking the chicken yourself. But if you’re grabbing something on the run, you might want to visit the rotisserie case at your local supermarket. Try picking a chicken that’s not slathered in sugary barbecue sauce. And if you throw away the skin, you’ll save yourself from eating most 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 the sum of 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 poultry section and roast it yourself, so you can control how much salt is added.
- 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 and doesn’t add fat. Of course, the best thing to grill would be skinless chicken, 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 it on the lean side. For burgers, consider a leaner option than beef, such as ground turkey or buffalo. But as always, check the label. Some grinds of turkey have as much fat as a fatty grind of beef. Ground turkey breast is usually much leaner than ground turkey. If you’re going to make beef burgers, try to find a grind that is under 5 percent fat. 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 foodborne 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 do. Bratwurst is another delicious summer fave, but watch the fat and sodium content in those 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. Mayonnaise is the culprit in these dishes. At 50 calories a tablespoon with 5 grams of fat, these side dishes can turn deadly for your diet in a hurry. But you can mitigate the damage somewhat. Instead of mayonnaise, consider using nonfat yogurt, food-processed nonfat cottage cheese, or nonfat ricotta cheese instead. You’ll get fewer calories, less fat, and lessen the risk of salmonella poisoning by going eggless. One way to make potato salad healthier is to leave the skins on the potatoes, as they have the fiber and most of the vitamins in the spud. For macaroni salad, use a whole-grain pasta to get extra fiber. Better yet, make a pasta salad 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 will keep you full. What you want to watch out for is the sugar that is added to most baked beans—sometimes as much as 3 teaspoons 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. But check the trail mix ingredients. Some, especially those containing granola, can be loaded with super-unhealthy hydrogenated oils and fat. There are trail mixes on the market that have more fat than a large order of fries, so it’s definitely a buyer-beware situation. Also check out how much sugar is in the trail mix or granola bars you’re taking backpacking. Some bars aren’t much healthier than a Snickers®. If 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 send me bolting into the street. But that scoop of vanilla can have up to 400 calories and 25 grams of fat, 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.