Portable Picnic Feasts

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD

How fun is a portable feast during warm months? Lots...with some planning and preparation. Let seasonal fruit and veggies dictate your next meal!

Salsa Five Ways

(Each variation makes approximately 3 cups)

Basic mix

  • ½ cup chopped sweet onions
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 teaspoons seeded and chopped fresh chili or bell pepper (you choose the heat)
  • ½ cup chopped fresh tomatoes, with juice (or canned, chopped tomatoes with juice)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine. This mixture is the base for your salsa. Store, covered, in the refrigerator. Do not use a metal bowl or container for any of the salsas.

Total calories
per 2 Tablespoon serving: 4
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 1 gram Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 1 milligram Fiber: <1 gram

Salsa Variations

Pineapple-Strawberry: You'll need 1 cup of finely diced pineapple, with juice; you can use fresh or canned pineapple. You'll also need 1 ½ cups of chopped fresh strawberries. Mix the pineapple and strawberries together in a bowl, and then add to the basic salsa mix; toss to combine. If you like, you may add approximately 1 teaspoon of black pepper or 2 Tablespoons of red or balsamic vinegar for additional flavor. Stir well, cover, and refrigerate for at least one hour. This variation works well with savory or sweet dishes; try with freshly cut bell peppers, daikon radish, jicama, watermelon, or honeydew melon.

Cucumber-Bell Pepper: Peel, seed, and chop cucumbers to total 2 cups. De-seed and finely chop ¾ cup of bell peppers (you can use several colors if you like). Combine cucumber and bell pepper together and then add to basic salsa mix. You may flavor to your taste with 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, or 2 teaspoons of hot sauce. Stir well, cover, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Summer Squash-Honeydew Melon: Finely chop 2 cups of summer squash. Peel, de-seed, and chop honeydew melon to equal 1 cup. Mix together squash and melon and add to basic salsa mix. You may flavor to your taste with a splash of hot sauce, 2 teaspoons of black pepper, or additional chopped chilies. Stir well, cover, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Watermelon-Green Grape: Peel and finely cube watermelon to equal to 2 cups (de-seed if you like). Chop ¾ cup green grapes (each grape approximately cut into quarters, depending on size). Mix together watermelon and grapes and add to basic salsa mix. You may flavor to taste with a splash of hot sauce, 2 teaspoons of chili powder, or additional chopped chilies. Stir well, cover, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Baked Spinach Rice

(Serves 8)

Bake a double batch of this recipe, storing one in the refrigerator to use now and one in the freezer for a future picnic. You can serve this dish cold in the summer and hot in the winter! Pair with a fresh fruit salad and you have an almost complete meal!

  • 2 pounds (about 10 packed cups) fresh, washed spinach
  • 2 cups long-grain jasmine or basmati rice
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan margarine
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • 1 cup grated vegan white cheese (such as mozzarella)
  • 2 cups drained, finely diced firm tofu
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 cup fresh grapes, sliced, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring four quarts of water to a boil. Add the spinach to the boiling water with tongs and allow it only to wilt. Quickly remove spinach from the water as soon as it wilts, but do not drain the pot; the water will be used to cook the rice. Strain spinach in a colander or strainer and rinse with cold water until cool. Squeeze out water (do not "mush" the spinach) and chop it into long, flat, noodle-sized strands. Set aside.

Place rice in the still-boiling water and cook for about ten minutes, uncovered, until al dente, a little too chewy to eat. Drain the rice and spread it onto a large platter or baking pan to cool. When cool, place rice in a large bowl. Melt margarine in a skillet and add sliced almonds to the margarine, stirring, using medium heat. Cook until almonds are toasted, about three minutes. Add cheese and quickly stir to melt and coat almonds. Add to rice. Add tofu and seasonings to the rice and mix to combine. Add spinach and toss or mix gently, making certain that the rice and spinach are evenly distributed.

Spray a 2 quart baking dish with vegetable oil. Add spinach/rice mixture. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until top is browned, about 5 minutes, depending on your oven.

If serving warm, garnish with grapes prior to service. If serving cold, cover and allow to cool in the refrigerator for at least three hours. Garnish with grapes.

Note: If you would like to prepare a nut-free recipe, sunflower seeds or toasted soy nuts may be used to replace the almonds.

Total calories per serving: 350 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 49 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 280 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Salad Niçoise

(Serves 6)

We've updated and veganized this traditional salad! The "Niçoise" in the title of this recipe refers to Niçoise olives — black, briny olives from southern France.

For the Dressing

  • ¼ cup red vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon or spicy mustard
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano

Place all ingredients in a container with a tight lid. Shake vigorously until all ingredients are combined. Allow to cool in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

For the Salad

  • 4 cups cooked, cooled pasta (any small shape, such as bow ties, rotini, penne, etc.)
  • 2 cups trimmed and cut or snapped into 1-inch pieces fresh green beans (not cooked)
  • 2 cups black-eyed peas (fresh, not cooked; fresh, cooked; or canned, drained — your choice)
  • 2 cups (about 16 ounces or 1 pint) fresh washed cherry tomatoes
  • ½ cup pitted, halved, drained Niçoise or black olives 2 cups (16 ounces) diced, drained extra-firm tofu (flavored tofu is fine)
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley (leaves and stems)
  • 4-6 fresh red onion slices for garnish, if desired
  • 2 sheets of nori, crumbled, if desired, for garnish

You have several choices for the salad. You may toss all the salad ingredients together in a bowl, toss with the dressing, and serve. You could also assemble the salad on a platter, starting with the pasta, and then arrange or layer each ingredient around the platter, using your artistic talents for a more visually interesting display.

Serve the dressing on the side. Another idea is to assemble the salad on individual plates, serving the dressing on the side.

Total calories per serving: 449 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 63 grams Protein: 26 grams
Sodium: 161 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Picnic in a Bread Bowl

(Serves 5)

This recipe is easy to prepare with the ingredients listed below or what you have in your refrigerator or pantry. If you prefer, rather than using one large bread loaf, you may use individual crusty rolls. This recipe is a prepare-ahead; it gets even better when stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.

  • 1 large, round loaf of crusty bread (10-inch diameter or larger)
  • ¾ cup prepared pesto
  • 1 cup (about 8 ounces) thinly sliced smoked tofu or veggie meat slices (about ¼-inch slices)
  • 2 cups (about 1 pound) thinly sliced ripe tomatoes (about ¼-inch slices)
  • ½ cup washed, packed whole fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup shredded vegan cheese
  • 1 cup drained, chopped canned artichoke hearts

Place bread on a large plate. Make a lid by slicing off a very thin slice of the bread top. Set aside. Scoop out the bread interior, scooping as close to the crust as you can without making any holes in the sides or the bottom. You may want to save the bread interior and use for fresh bread crumbs or in a bread pudding.

Spoon and spread the pesto along the bottom and sides of the bread bowl. Save any leftover pesto. Layer half the tofu, tomatoes, basil, vegan cheese, and artichokes, tamping down each layer. Repeat until all ingredients are used. Pour any remaining pesto over the layered ingredients. Place the bread lid back on top and wrap the loaf tightly with plastic wrap or cheesecloth. Place in the refrigerator, with a heavy pot lid or several heavy plates to help compact the ingredients. Chill for at least one hour before slicing

Note: A salad dressing of your choice may be used to replace the pesto.

Total calories per serving: 493 Fat: 17 grams
Carbohydrates: 64 grams Protein: 20 grams
Sodium: 1281 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Seven Layered Salad in a Jar

(Serves 5)

Use sterilized jars or containers with tight lids. Substitute fruits and veggies based on availability.

  • 1 cup cooked, cooled edamame
  • 1 cup fresh, dried or canned cooked and cooled lima beans
  • 1 cup fresh, washed and shelled (not cooked) peas
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries, boysenberries, or raspberries
  • 1 cup fresh cut corn (not cooked, cut from the cob)
  • 1 cup seeded and diced red or yellow bell peppers
  • 1 cup seeded, peeled and diced honeydew or cantaloupe
  • 4 Tablespoons chopped walnuts or pumpkin seeds
  • 1 ½ cups salad dressing of choice

Either in one large jar or container or in 5 individual containers (each holding approximately 1 cup) layer all ingredients, (veggies, fruits, and beans) except for salad dressing and nuts. When layering is complete, top with nuts/seeds. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour prior to serving. Spoon on dressing before serving.

Note: To make nut free, replace walnuts with raisins, chopped dried fruit, or toasted soy nuts. Nutrient information will vary based on dressing choice.

Total calories per serving: 431 Fat: 27 grams
Carbohydrates: 41 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 45 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Caesar Salad

(Serves 5)

Romaine lettuce is traditional for Caesar salad, but feel free to take advantage of fresh seasonal greens and create your own Caesar tradition.


  • ½ cup cashews or walnuts or sunflower seeds
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 3 Tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons Dijon or spicy mustard
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper

Place the nuts, oil, lemon juice, yeast, mustard, garlic, and pepper in the canister of a food processor or blender and process until the mixture is smooth. If the mixture is too thick (think: thin salad dressing), you may slowly add up to 4 Tablespoons of room temperature (not cold) water until the desired thickness is reached.

Place dressing in a container and refrigerate for at least one hour.


  • 2 heads Romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped (about 6 cups)
  • 2 cups vegan croutons
  • 2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced (if too ripe, then diced)
  • 2 cups peeled, seeded, finely diced ripe cantaloupe
  • 1 cup fresh peas (not cooked)
  • 3 Tablespoons drained, sliced black olives

Place the romaine in a large bowl. Toss with the dressing, croutons, avocados, cantaloupe, peas, and olives. You can toss at home, or keep salad and dressing separate and toss just prior to serving.

Total calories per serving: 419 Fat: 25 grams
Carbohydrates: 41 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 275 milligrams Fiber: 16 grams

Nancy Berkoff is a chef and Registered Dietitian. She is The Vegetarian Resource Group's Foodservice Advisor.