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Mr. Norris, summer picnics are loaded with sweet treats. Any advice about throwing a picnic that is nutritious and tastes good, too? – C. Scarberry, Oklahoma City

Jim Fowler, a great naturalist and former TV host, once said, “If you have a place where you can go and have a picnic with your family, it doesn’t matter if it’s a recession or not; you can include that in your quality of life.”

Your quality of life is my concern in “C-Force.” And I agree with Fowler that a picnic is a perfect place to boost it.

Most of us enjoy great hamburger and hot dog meals at summer picnics, but there are also some great healthy and energy-producing picnic-food alternatives that taste great and will help you and your guests preserve your waistlines and minimize the four S’s (salts, sugars, starches and saturated fats).

Let’s start with drinks

Try nonalcoholic drinks at your picnic. Offer iced tea with lemon slices that is either unsweetened or sweetened with stevia, a natural sweetener. If you have a bucket full of ice and bottles of water at the entrance to your picnic area, you’ll be surprised by how many grab one on their way in and just keep drinking it. (At the very least, water fills the stomach and dilutes alcohol.) Place a sign next to the bucket that says, “Please grab one!” (Do you think they won’t on a hot summer day?)

Chips and dip

Try potato chip alternatives, such as whole-wheat pita rounds cut into small triangles. You even can toast them to make them crunchy. Consider hummus, salsa or black bean dip instead of queso, ranch dressing or refried beans. Even better, you might try some vegetable trays; for those on the run, the grocer sells them all prepared in the produce section. Carrots, edamame, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli and celery with a little organic peanut butter make great appetizers.

Main meal

An Oscar Mayer single hot dog has 16 grams of fat, 147 calories, no fiber and 461 milligrams of sodium. A single 4-ounce hamburger has 14 grams of fat, 279 calories and 504 milligrams of sodium. Those stats don’t include the buns, fixings or condiments. And consider that one piece of KFC’s extra-crispy fried chicken breast delivers 33 grams of fat, 510 calories and 1,250 milligrams of sodium.

If you want hamburgers, consider a super-lean ground beef or alternatives such as turkey, chicken, salmon or lentil or veggie burgers. Soy-based cheeses or grilled mushrooms also can offer healthier alternatives for toppings, along with traditional lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, etc. And multi-grain buns are a must instead of buns made with enriched white bread.

If you want a healthier alternative to hot dogs and hamburgers, try shish kebabs, because they not only control portions but also provide lots of nutrition and are often fun to serve and eat. There is nothing better than grilled zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, onions and squash. Use a little olive oil, sprinkle with rosemary, salt and pepper to brush over them as they cook. For vegetarians or those who don’t eat beef, shish kebabs also allow you to have all-vegetable or fish and chicken options, too. There is also nothing better than free-range chicken or fresh wild salmon on a kebab! (Who is going to miss a hot dog or hamburger when you offer him a shish kebab?)

Another healthy option for picnics is to consider serving lean meat sandwiches, such as turkey or chicken on multi-grain bread. Even better, scrap the bread and use healthy tortilla wraps. Have a spread of veggies – including pickles, shredded carrots, black olives and spinach – for a nutritious punch.

Salads and side dishes

Salads are always a picnic plus, especially if people avoid the multi-mix on the shish kebabs. Instead of high-calorie, fatty potato salads, try using sweet potatoes. Also, with egg or pasta salad, try decreasing ingredients such as cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream. Replace them with vinaigrette, and include a higher ratio of veggies and more nutritious pasta, such as bulgur, couscous or quinoa.

If you’re making a leafy salad, dump the typical iceberg or romaine lettuce for a fancied mix; spinach is always better. Scrap the croutons, bacon bits and fatty dressings, such as ranch and blue cheese. Instead, add a crazy mix of colored veggies – a rainbow of God-nutrients, with some black, red or pinto beans, slightly sprinkled with vinaigrette. Diced, skinless chicken pieces will give any salad an added protein and flavor boost.

Grilled veggies alone also can serve as an amazing side dish. Fruit salads are also a big hit, but allow their natural sugars and tastes to come through by adding nothing to them or, at the very most, a slight coating of nonfat yogurt. Small chunks of apples, grapes, strawberries, peaches, bananas and pineapples are dressed and ready to go.

Dessert

To me, watermelon is one of the kings of all picnic fruits, because you don’t have to do a thing to it and everyone loves it. It often is served with the meal at a picnic, but if you save it exclusively for dessert, it will appeal even more to others and can satisfy the sweetest of sweet teeth. Who doesn’t like watermelon? Put a strawberry or two (or a couple of cherries) on the side to garnish it, with even (if you must) a dash of nonfat whipped topping, and you’ve crowned your picnic with a parade of nutritious and delicious delights. As an added bonus, watermelon is loaded with an amino acid called L-citrulline. And a study of prehypertensive people just discovered that this amino acid helped improve their blood circulation and lowered their systolic blood pressure.

And if you’re worried about all that watermelon juice attracting ants, consider what one aardvark said to another aardvark in a comic strip I read recently: “What’s a picnic without ants?”

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