Written by Stephanie Langford, Contributing Writer

One of the things that I love about summer is the spontaneity it brings out in us. A delectable, sunshiney day can induce a whim to head off to the beach or a favorite park. Restless kids, eager to get out and play, can prompt a last-minute trip to the zoo or a call to another mom for a water-park “date”.

The thing about spontaneity is that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to carefully planned and prepared food for an impromptu outing. I’m certainly no gourmet or food snob, but neither will you catch me stopping at a fast-food restaurant or grabbing something from a park concession. I want whole foods from home, to nourish little tummies and go easy on the bank book.

So just how much time do you have to prepare your to-go lunch? Here are plenty of our favorite options to help get you started!

Photo by briannalehman

10 Minutes or Less

When I’m in a true time crunch, I simply raid the fridge. To pull together my fastest portable lunches, I grab the simplest of options to keep big and little tummies full:

  • Sandwich makings: Find bread of choice (slices, pitas, tortillas, bagels, buns, etc.), proteins (sandwich meat, pre-cooked chicken, hummus, cheese, nut butter, canned fish), veggies (lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados) and condiments (mayo, mustard, ketchup, jam, butter, pesto)– everything gets tossed into a bag or cooler. Add some knives or forks as needed, a kitchen towel or two, napkins to serve as plates, a small cutting board if you must. At your destination, transform your “makings” into amazing custom sandwiches, minus the time spent preparing them upfront.
  • Leftovers: Cold pasta, salads, foods you can hold (pizza, burritos, samosas, cold burgers), anything that doesn’t need to be heated up. Yesterday, I packed up two cold pasta options and leftover salad from the night before, to eat alongside yogurt and fruit.
  • A snack-style lunch: If there’s nothing pre-made and sandwiches won’t work, go with random. A bag of organic corn chips, hummus or guac or salsa, whatever fresh fruit you have around, any variety of nuts or dried fruit (together as trail mix or kept separate), a quickly sliced cucumber or handful of carrots, chunks of cheese, crackers, slices of meat, bread… anything. My kids have never complained, particularly since they love to graze on snacks anyways, and random as it may be, it’s all good food.
  • Yogurt parfaits: Toss a large container of yogurt in your bag, along with a bag of granola or your choice of nuts, some berries or cut fruit, and a stack of bowls or cups. At your destination, put it all together in beautifully layered parfaits (like an ice cream sundae, but a much healthier version).
Photo by ozmafan

15 Minutes

If you can work fast and have a few extra minutes, you can pull together a pretty decent picnic lunch in 15 minutes.

  • Cold pasta salad. Begin to boil water immediately, toss pasta in as soon as you can. While everything boils, quickly chop up any meats or hard-boiled eggs you already have on hand, fresh veggies (we like peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini), add chunks of cheese or a crumble of feta cheese. Mix it up fast with a pre-made dressing from your fridge (vinaigrette or creamy-style), or simply drizzle olive oil and a bit of apple cider or balsamic vinegar, some salt and pepper. When the pasta is cooked, drain and rinse with cold water until cool to touch. Add in all your ingredients and dressings, and voila.
  • Quesadillas: 15 minutes is the perfect amount of time to fry up several simple quesadillas (with cheese only, or add other favorite fillings that you have readily on hand). Use kitchen scissors to cut them into easy-to-handle triangles. They taste just fine cold, and if you have sour cream, guacamole or salsa, bring those for dipping. Alternatively, you could spend your time rolling up burritos if you have pre-cooked or canned beans, rice, and some cheese.
  • Pinwheel sandwiches: Spread out several large tortillas and fill with either a sweet (like nut butter and fruit or jam) or savory filling (cream cheese, meat, veggies). Roll up and then slice into small rounds, easy for little hands to hold. Use toothpicks to keep them together if you like.
  • Fruit salad: This can be a delicious meal for a hot summer day. Chop up whatever selection of fresh fruit you have available. Mix up with yogurt or cottage cheese, some honey, maybe a drizzle of lemon or lime juice (not only does it taste good, it helps to keep the fruit from browning), or just keep it plain if you prefer.
  • Cold rice & bean salad: If you’ve got cooked rice in the fridge and any assortment of cooked beans or chickpeas, mix it together with some oil and vinegar, chopped peppers, tomatoes, peas… whatever you like. I like to sweeten my oil and vinegar dressing with a bit of apple juice or honey and add a pinch of salt. Make lots of dressing because the rice and beans will soak it up quickly.
  • Egg salad: If you don’t have hard boiled eggs already made, this one is pushing the time limit a little, but the eggs can cook while you get the kids ready and pack up everything else. Run eggs under cold water, peel and then chop/mash with some mayo, mustard, and perhaps some chopped chicken or diced celery and seasonings. Roll up in wraps, spread on bread or buns, eat on crackers- any way you like it.
  • Devilled Eggs: Or, turn your hard-boiled eggs into everyone’s favorite appetizer.
  • Fresh dips: Smoothy and creamy dips like guacamole or hummus or baba ganouj pair well with chunks of bread, pitas, tortilla chips, or they can be spread in a tortilla and filled up with chopped veggies for a fresh and light tasting wrap. Or create a chunky salsa, maybe with added beans and corn (or this bean and avocado salad) for something you can scoop up or even eat with a fork.

Want to be truly inspired and create a gourmet foodie feast in a flash? The ever-amazing Mark Bittman has created a list of 101 Picnic Recipes to make in 20 minutes of less. Wow.

Photo by feastguru_kirti

General Snack Ideas

Round out your portable meal with some of these simple and wholesome snacks:

  • Granola or fruit/nut bars: Bars always seem to be a hit and they are a fantastic portable food that packs some nutritional punch. This is my favorite stick-together granola bar recipe, and my whole family adores the many variations of a homemade Larabar in the Healthy Snacks to Go ebook.
  • Popcorn: It only takes a few minutes to pop up a bag of fresh popcorn, but it’s such a nice light snack to munch on. Our family loves butter, salt and nutritional yeast (tastes lightly cheesey and is full of B vitamins).
  • Homemade muffins or quick breads: Nope, you won’t be making these on the morning of, but if you have some around, they’re a perfect addition to your meal.
  • Fresh fruit: The options are endless… apple slices, bananas, oranges, fresh berries, kiwis, avocados (these make the perfect portable baby food- just bring a knife and spoon!), melon slices, grapes, or whole fruits like plums, nectarines, peaches and the like.
  • Cut veggies: Carrots, cucumber, celery, peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, whatever you like. Bring along a small container with a yogurt based dip. I like to keep a powdered ranch dip mix on hand (mine is from Oregon Spices- their mixes are more natural, without nasty ingredients) to whip up dips last minute.
  • Crackers: Eat with nut butter, with cheese, with a dip like hummus, or just on their own. Corn chips also make nice dippers, particularly with guacamole or salsa.
Photo by Alex{G}

How to Carry and Keep it Cold

A large portion of the foods I’ve mentioned require a cooler tempterature to remain safe if they won’t be eaten for at least several hours. The way that I solve this is by always keeping a couple of those small freezer packs in my upstairs freezer so that I can grab them quickly and toss them into my bag or cooler.

These may not be enough to keep perishable foods cool enough throughout an entire summer day, but they are certainly good enough to last for 3-4 hours and sometimes more. The key is that your foods still feel cool to the touch when you take them out.

For ease of transportation, I like to keep a collapsible cooler bag in a kitchen cupboard. I can’t seem to find the exact one that I have to show you, but this one will give you the basic idea. They are inexpensive, but so handy to have. Don’t expect them to keep foods as well or as long as a proper cooler, but for shorter day outings, they are a perfect, light-weight solution.

May your summer include plenty of fun-filled impromptu outings (and nourishing foods to bring along)!

What type of foods do you pack up for last-minute outings?