One of the best things about an outdoor adventure is building up an appetite. After time on the trails or in the water, everyone’s ready for a big lunch. But you also want to get back to the fun. This isn’t the time to light a fire or spend a lot of time preparing. You want a lunch that’s quick, tasty, and healthy. It also needs to provide you with sustained energy for the rest of the day.
Before we offer some suggestions, it’s good to think about things you may want to avoid. Let’s start with high-sugar foods. Sweet foods—especially soda and candy—can cause a spike in your blood sugar, leading to a crash later. (Of course, we aren’t monsters, there’s nothing wrong with a cookie or another treat for dessert—just eat the healthy stuff first.) Avoid things that are too messy. Eating outside comes with its own challenges—don’t make it hard on yourself. Bring along more food than you typically eat for lunch, as you’re going to need those extra calories. Kids who typically are fine with half a sandwich will probably surprise you coming back for seconds.
While it’s easy to throw together some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bag of GORP, it’s also fun to put a little planning into your outdoor eating. This isn’t something you do every day, so why not make it a meal to remember? Organize something that the whole family can get behind, and you’ll be a hero. To help you get started, here are nine suggestions for healthy and easy lunches that will make your outdoor adventure even more special.
1. Go European
For those hiking in the Alps, lunch is easy—a loaf of crusty bread, some butter, a block of cheese, and a stick of hard sausage. It sounds simple, but it really is a wonderful (and tasty) way to refuel, with a good balance of carbs, fat, and protein. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to bring along some fruit as well, maybe some apples and grapes, which pair well with cheese. Finish it off with a few bites of dark chocolate, and you’re ready to go.
2. Serious Sandwiches
The trouble with sandwiches made with store-bought loaves is that they don’t travel well. They’re too easy to smush. Swap the bread out for hardier, multigrain rolls to avoid this fate. Let each family member pick their favorite sandwich, make it ahead of time, and let it sit in the fridge overnight to get them nice and cold. Some suggestions apart from the usual: turkey, brie, and cranberry sauce; grilled chicken with pepper jack and avocado; or a New Orleans-style muffuletta, which tastes excellent cold. As sides, try some veggie chips or straws for some added salt. Freeze tube yogurt ahead of time, and by lunch the kids will love them as a cold treat.
3. Wrap it Up
Using a tortilla instead of bread is another way to make sandwiches more transportable. It doesn’t take much imagination here to try something new. Some favorites include turkey and ranch; buffalo chicken; turkey and pesto; roast beef, horseradish, and cheddar; and cucumber, tomato, and cream cheese. There’s nothing wrong with a cold burrito, either. Bring along some chips (you’ll crave the salt) or a fruit salad as a side to round it out. Cold brownies are always a good option for a treat at the end as well.
4. Old-School Picnic
For more of a sit-down affair, take a page from your grandparents’ playbook, who probably had an old wooden picnic basket that they used quite often. It was filled with cold fried chicken, which always did the trick. If you want something a bit healthier now, go with a rotisserie chicken, which is easy to cool and quarter on your own. Sides include cold salads like potato, coleslaw, or a three-bean. Cut up carrots, celery, and peppers for the kids to nosh on, and if you’re eating close to your campsite or car, bring out the watermelon to cut up for dessert.
5. Pasta Salads
Get your carbo-loading without the bread with a cold pasta salad. It’s easy to make at home with your favorite cooked pasta plus some olive oil and vinegar for dressing. Add cherry tomatoes, cucumber, kalamata olives, salami, feta cheese, and parsley for a traditional mix, but you can add just about any veggies and herbs you like. If you want to try something new, consider a Thai-style noodle salad with peanut sauce or a Mediterranean couscous salad. Here’s another opportunity to hit the deli counter for a variety of cold salads to please everyone.
6. A Middle Eastern Feast
It’s easy to pull together several Middle Eastern dishes that are easily served cold. Start with a bowl of hummus and cut up lots of veggies and pita chips for dipping. You can add some baba ghanoush, tomato-cucumber salad, or a tabouli salad. If you’re not up for making these yourself, they’re often available in the prepared foods section of the grocery. Don’t forget the pita bread, which you can dip in garlic or tzatziki sauce, or bring along some precooked lamb or chicken shawarma and serve cold. It’s not hard to create an impressive spread everyone can sample.
7. Veggie Delights
You don’t need meat for a hearty lunch. It’s not hard to come up with vegetarian sandwiches that anyone would love. Avocado, lettuce, and tomato on multigrain bread is terrific. The same goes for grilled mushrooms, zucchini, and onions. Roll up black beans, sweet potato puree, and cheese in a tortilla, and you’ve got a burrito you won’t want to put down. Bring along some tortilla chips and salsa for everyone to share.
8. Gourmet Options
Maybe you’re the type of person who loves to cook? Take this opportunity to try some dishes that you don’t regularly have. Quiche isn’t considered a picnic food, but it’s easy to make ahead of time and delicious cold. Add some chopped asparagus, prosciutto, and gruyere for something special. Instead of tuna, try salmon salad. Grilled, thinly sliced skirt steak makes excellent sandwiches, especially with a chimichurri sauce. Let the picky kids go with a PB&J, while you enjoy the good stuff.
9. Bento Box
A bento box is a single-portion container used in Japan and other Asian countries. It traditionally includes rice or noodles, meat or fish, and vegetables in the segmented box. Think of a cafeteria tray or TV dinner. If you’re up for Asian flavors, these can be purchased premade in many big cities to take on your trip. Or you can make your own with your favorite recipes.
Hungry yet? With a little bit of planning, you can make lunch a highlight of your day outside. And with smiles on their faces, everyone can get back to the business of having fun.
Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with Kampgrounds of America.