I love summer. As a self-professed foodie, one of my favorite things to do this time of year is to head to a scenic spot with friends and roll out a picnic. It’s one of summer’s greatest pleasures (and P.S. — picnics also help boost your mood thanks to fresh air and vitamin D from sunshine!).
But while dining with my gang outdoors may rank high on my summer to-do list, I’m not always as excited about the food prep part … especially when it’s way too steamy to even think about the kitchen.
So recently, instead of turning on the stove, I turned on my car. A few minutes on the road and helloooo, Trader Joe’s!
Why TJ’s? For those who aren’t already devotees: Fresh foods and unique ingredients abound. You can shop the latest, healthiest food trends (like cauliflower rice and gluten-free waffles). Plus, prices are pretty hard to beat (and, no, this story wasn’t sponsored!).
I’m always up for a good challenge, so I gave myself a $50 budget for four people. In mere minutes, I was able to buzz through and score an eclectic array of appetizers and ale perfect for outdoors. Of course, since no festive spread is complete without sweets, I also gathered some goodies in the fruit and chocolate aisles.
Here are the 11 items I chose for my gourmet picnic. Item prices may vary slightly based on your location, but clearly a $50 budget is enough to turn your next alfresco experience into something downright exceptional. Happy eating!
Cheese and crackers
One of my favorite parts of Trader Joe’s involves cheese — goat cheese, to be exact. Having sampled most of them, I return time and time again to the Wild Blueberry Vanilla Chèvre ($4.49) and the Raspberry Chèvre ($2.99).
Not only do these two selections have rich summer berry flavors, but goat cheese has significantly less calories than others like cheddar, Swiss, and brie. Plus, it’s loaded with essential nutrients including calcium, iron, and magnesium.
I paired the cheese with a cookie-cracker hybrid, Trader Joe’s Belgian Butter Almond Thins ($2.79). They have a lighter, crunchy texture (perfect for summer) and are loaded with healthy almonds. Plus, they taste ridiculously good … so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
My main focus when picking out meat was to find options that were easy to transport and not messy.
Final choices included several Volpi Roltinis ($1.29 each), prosciutto ham wrapped in mozzarella cheese. Individually packaged, these caught my eye because they’re free of nitrate, nitrite, and gluten. Plus, they taste delicious and are easily portable.
The Trader Joe’s Classic California Rolls ($3.49) also made it into my shopping basket. These rolls are on the lighter side, perfect for a warm day. Plus, the packaging contains everything you need to enjoy your sushi: ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce. At under $4 for eight pieces, you can’t go wrong with this picnic pick.
Salad and fruit
Summertime is ideal for taking advantage of fresh fruits and veggies that are in season. My indulgent choices: Butternut Squash Red Quinoa and Wheat Berry Salad ($3.99) and Tri-Color Seedless Grape Medley ($5.99).
The salad is bursting with healthy ingredients, including arugula, cranberries, squash, almonds, quinoa, goat cheese (again!), and wheat berries. It includes a light honey-based vinaigrette that doesn’t take away from any of the flavors in the salad.
The grape medley is large, refreshing, and an ideal energy pick-me-up. For you health junkies out there, grapes also boast high levels of polyphenols, antioxidants that fight free radicals and may prevent cardiovascular disease.
If you’re bringing kiddos along for this picnic, the grapes will go a long way in keeping everyone happy!
No picnic is complete without some cool and refreshing sips. On the nonalcoholic side, the TJ’s staff insisted I try the Watermelon Cucumber Cooler ($3.49). It’s light, sweet, and perfect for a warm day. Sold!
I also opted for beer (instead of wine) because of its abundant nutritional qualities (yes, it’s true!). Beer is loaded with protein, fiber, B vitamins, folate, and niacin, and has been even been approved for anxiety and restlessness.
While Trader Joe’s has an extensive beer collection, I opted for Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin India Pale Ale ($2.34 per can), which didn’t disappoint. Its sweet grapefruit smell is intoxicating, and it has a mild, spicy, citrus flavor that feels a bit fancy.
Nuts and chocolate
Budget or no budget, nuts and chocolate were nonnegotiable on my list. They’re the perfect nibbles to end things on a sweet note. Obviously, they taste incredible, but they have an added health bonus — improved mood, thanks to a boost in serotonin. Nuts are vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant powerhouses, loaded with protein and fiber.
For this outing I opted for Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Lover’s Bar ($1.69 each), which contains a whopping 85 percent of cacao (meaning it’s loaded with antioxidants).
My second pick was Trader Joe’s Sweet, Savory and Tart Trek Mix ($4.49), loaded with cashews, peanuts, raisins, cranberries, and chocolate chips.
This trail mix creates the perfect balance of sweet and salty and is great when paired with cheese and grapes.
Picnics are the perfect way to enjoy all that summer holds — food, friends, and the great outdoors.
And while you could go high-end and spend double what I did on gourmet deli salads and pricey Chardonnays or go old-school and load up on mayo-laden sandwiches and chips (or even go all Martha Stewart and spend hours in the kitchen preparing unique delights), sometimes it’s better (and all-around healthier) to just hit your local store and shop quickly, cheaply, and creatively!
So, how do you plan on picnicking this summer? Tell me some of your picnic items and activities!
All original photo credits belong to Marisa Zeppieri.
Marisa Zeppieri is a health and food journalist, chef, author, and founder of LupusChick.com and LupusChick 501c3. She resides in New York with her husband and rescued rat terrier. Follow her on Facebook and on Instagram @LupusChickOfficial.