What a nutritionist really packs on a picnic (and what they leave behind)

    Two friends in the park having a picnic
    Published: 12 July 2021. Written by: Nicola Down.

    Stumped when it comes to the best options for prepping a picnic? James Vickers, registered nutritionist and Vitality Expert, shares what he’ll be putting in his hamper this summer – and what he’ll leave in the supermarket. 

    Sitting on blankets, basking in the sunshine, laughing with friends and family, and feeling as if you don’t have a care in the world. Yep, picnics (when it’s not chucking it down) are pretty awesome. Little wonder, then, that we want to fill our chill bag with foods that are not only delicious but that make us feel our best.  

    This is where James Vickers, a registered nutritionist and Vitality Expert, comes in. ‘I’ve been crazy about picnics since I was a child,’ he says. ‘We’d meet up with family, have a game of rounders and just graze on food – my idea of heaven. Now, I’ll find any excuse to have a picnic, whether it’s catching up with a big group of friends in the park, or just popping to the shop with my wife and buying a few bits for an alfresco feast.’ 

    So, what does a nutritionist pack? Here, Vickers shares his healthy picnic shopping list and the food he leaves on the shelves…

    Older couple eating watermelon and laughing

    Pack it: Crunchy crudités

    ‘When it comes to our diets, we should all be aiming for more variety. Not only does eating a greater selection of foods give you a wider range of vitamins and minerals, but it also has a positive impact on our gut bacteria, which in turn helps to support our immune system. So, I go all out on light and crunchy raw crudités like carrots, cucumber, peppers, cherry tomatoes, radishes, little gem lettuces and celery, as well as more surprising raw options like sugar snap peas, broccoli and courgette. A lot of people, including young children, discover they love the different flavour, texture and crunch-factor of eating vegetables raw.’  

    Pack it: Hummus

    ‘Hummus is naturally high in good fats, a source of plant-based protein and can count as one of your five-a-day – I love the stuff! I often make it myself, sneaking in extra veg like roasted peppers, beetroot or spinach. Sausage rolls dipped in hummus is my most recent revelation and I refuse to apologise because Michelin-star chefs often discover their favourite food combinations by accident – and we should, too!’

    Take a look at our beetroot hummus recipe 

    Family sharing some melon outsaide laughin

    Pack it: Super salad sarnies

    ‘Salads often get ignored at picnics because everyone is more interested in food they can eat with their fingers. So why not put the salad into the sandwich? Try chicken Caesar salad on toasted ciabatta, made with chicken, parmesan shavings and low-fat yoghurt instead of mayo; or tomato, mozzarella and pesto on sourdough. Generally speaking, to cut down on fat, mayo and butter can often be swapped for hummus, tzatziki, salsa, yoghurt,  chutney or a little mashed avocado. That means all you need to add is your favourite sandwich fillings, plus extra salad for satisfying crunch.’ 

    Pack it: Fabulous falafels

    ‘I love falafels in a wrap or with home-made flatbreads, which are so easy to make at home using yoghurt and plain flour in a hot pan. Team with salsa, tzatziki or yoghurt mixed with harissa paste for extra flavour and nutrients. What’s great is that falafels are easy to pack, plant-based and a source of protein and fibre.’  

    Two young girls eating ice cream at a picnic

    Pack it: Bite-sized eats

    ‘Quiche, sausage rolls and pastries are picnic essentials in my book, but it’s easy to go overboard on calories and fat. Instead, it’s worth buying mini versions or making your own and keeping a watchful eye on portion sizes. Try using your muffin tin to its full potential and bake up a batch of mini crustless quiches, savoury muffins or Spanish omelettes to share around, adding vegetables like spinach, broccoli or peppers. With sausage rolls, use a lean meat filling and less pastry, then slice up into small portions.’ 

    Park it: Sharing packets of crisps (that you don’t really intend to share!)

    ‘If there are a lot of you, sharing packs are great, but if they make you mindlessly graze, individual packets can be a better option. There’s so much choice in the crisp aisle nowadays, from lower-fat popped potato crisps to chickpea options. You could also make your own “crisps” by cutting tortilla or pitta breads into wedges or strips, brushing each side with a little oil and baking in the oven for a few minutes, before seasoning and cutting up into smaller “chip-sized” pieces.’

    Friends by the beach having a picnic in the sun

    Park it: The fruit bowl 

    ‘Fruit is fantastic, but for picnics it’s nice to try something new. My latest discovery is frozen watermelon triangles – kids go mad for them, including teething babies who have sore gums. Individual fruit jellies, with a base of fruit such as raspberries, also make a refreshing treat after a kickabout in the park.’ 

    Park it: Fancy iced cakes

    ‘Most picnic disasters I’ve seen have involved elaborate iced sponges that inevitably get thrown against the side of a cake tin. However, I like cake and believe you should have what you enjoy, occasionally, so why not bake something simpler and healthier. I like tweaking recipes – it drives my wife mad as she’s a strict recipe follower! I often use less sugar than the recipe suggests; add vegetables like grated courgette or beetroot for natural sweetness; add an extra banana to my banana bread to make it go further; or skip the icing on a tray bake and drizzle with a little melted dark chocolate instead.’ 

    Same sex couple sharing an ice lolly

    Park it: ‘Knife-and-fork’ food

    ‘Anything that requires cutlery often goes uneaten at picnics, which is why food on sticks is a winner. Try chicken, salmon, prawns or lean steak marinated in teriyaki, satay or lemon-and-garlic sauces, and add vegetables for extra fibre.’ 

    Group of friends having a picnic in the park

    Park it: Fizzy sugary drinks

    ‘Water is the best option and it needn’t be boring: try still or sparkling water flavoured with cucumber and fresh mint, or just add slices of citrus fruit. I’m also a fan of the new breed of non-alcoholic gins, which add interest to drinks without the unwanted hangover.’ 

    Ready to head out for a picnic with friends or family? Take a look at these quirky picnic recipe ideas here

    As a Vitality member, you could get up to 25% cashback on Waitrose & Partners Good Health food when you get active. If you have a second eligible health insurance or life insurance plan, you could get up to 40% cashback. Excludes beverages. Log in to Member Zone for the details.