Eating out

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It's picnic season, and you can keep your menu as healthy as the fresh air. Fiona Hamilton-Fairley has some tips for mobile food Now that the summer is finally here after a dull winter and wet spring, why not make the most of it and put your thoughts together for some picnic food? Eating outdoors can be such fun and after all, it's something we only get to do for a short period of time in our climate.

It's picnic season, and you can keep your menu as healthy as the fresh air. Fiona Hamilton-Fairley has some tips for mobile food

Now that the summer is finally here after a dull winter and wet spring, why not make the most of it and put your thoughts together for some picnic food? Eating outdoors can be such fun and after all, it's something we only get to do for a short period of time in our climate.

Of course, nannies are so often 'on the go' with their young charges at all times of year, I thought this would also be a good time to add some ideas for healthy snacks you can carry with you.

As a child once said to me, 'When we eat outside it is not only special for us, but also for the ants, bees, wasps and worms.' What could I say in reply? I could only agree, thinking of the times we have shared our family picnic with the insects, but that is part of the fun - isn't it? There's also a theory that you can keep the flying bugs away by spreading jam on a slice of bread and placing it some distance away from your picnic, so they go to that as a decoy -I'm not sure it works, but the children will have fun experimenting!

Planning the picnic

Planning for the picnic is essential, especially because you don't want to forget any vital ingredients or utensils or equipment. There are some excellent picnic sets in the shops, including plastic cups, plates, bowls and cutlery. They are often inexpensive, fun, bright and extremely practical. They are also sturdier than the paper or disposable versions, and give the picnic a proper feel. You can, of course, go for the totally disposable picnic, which means buying lots of throw-away items, but I am a conservationist and can't bear the thought of binning lots of plastic or paper unnecessarily. I feel strongly that my own children shouldn't learn these habits, but then there are times and places when you can't avoid it. My preference is to stick to good old purpose-built picnic gear and take it home for a wash-up and re-use.

When planning the menu for the picnic, the same rules apply as for any other meal. You want to keep the menu balanced, with plenty of carbohydrates, protein, fruit and vegetables. Keep in mind the fresh produce that's in season. This will help to reduce your shopping bill. Also remember to incorporate lots of colour into the picnic recipes - this will make your spread more appetising. It is also important to pack plenty of liquids, cold ones if possible. If you have a cool box or a thermal flask, make up lots of ice-cold drinks or cordials to keep everyone happy.

An informal picnic in a park or in woodlands usually requires a large blanket and possibly an umbrella or parasol to keep the sun off the food and the children. A more formal one can take place in a designated picnic area where proper picnic benches are available, or where you have to bring your own foldable chairs and tables. So make your menu suitable to the chosen surroundings.

Here are some ideas for picnic food.

Starters

* Baby new potatoes dipped in sour cream or cottage cheese * Cottage cheese and chive dip or tunafish dip, served with mixed crudites - sticks of carrot, celery, cucumber, mixed peppers and cauliflower * Cheese sticks or straws * Cheese squares and grapes on cocktail sticks * Scotch eggs * Celery boats filled with cream cheese Main courses

* Honey roast chicken drumsticks or cocktail sausages * Pitta bread pockets, filled with tunafish and mayonnaise or egg and cress, tomato and avocado or ham and cream cheese (try any combination of filling to suit your tastes - they're usually less messy and less hassle than sliced bread) * Sausage rolls or cheese puffs * Pasta shells salad (this could include tunafish and lettuce leaves) * Mixed rice salad (this could include lots of colour, such as sweetcorn, peas, peppers and red kidney beans) * Mini quiche (these can be meat, vegetarian or a mixture) * Mixed lettuce leaves and cherry tomatoes with sliced hardboiled eggs * Coleslaw with sultanas and grated apples * Filled sandwiches or croissants Desserts

* Fruit kebabs with creeme fraiche dip * Shortbread * Frozen yoghurt dessert (coolbox required) * Fresh fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines * Melon boats or fresh cherries * Rich chocolate brownies * Meringue baskets or peaks with fresh fruit These recipe ideas can be mixed and matched to suit the occasion, budget and time available to prepare and cook the food. Bear in mind the children's likes and dislikes and the fact that some of the guests or friends might be vegetarians.

Food preparation

When I'm getting ready for a picnic and decide to cook things in the oven, then I think I may as well cook lots of things at the same time to save energy and get everything over and done with. So I would plan to cook the chicken, sausages and any pastries such as sausage rolls, cheese puffs or cheese and onion pasties, all in one go. The same goes for the preparation - I like to do all the chopping up and slicing together. Then I stack things all neatly in the fridge so that I can put my hands on them quickly when packing up the picnic without forgetting anything.

cups, plates, cutlery, napkins, blanket, umbrella, cool box and a large rubbish bag. The most important items, though, are the food and plenty of drinks. If you can keep the food well chilled this will make a big difference to its quality in taste as well as presentation.

Mobile Food

The term 'mobile food' seems to go with today's fast lifestyles - and I don't mean fast food. To me, mobile food means food that we can carry around for that unexpected problem or mishap, or just to keep children happy and patient. Where young children are concerned, they are not forgiving if they are hungry. When you're stuck in a traffic jam or on a train or bus, it can be a lifesaver to be armed with some healthy snacks. You might not have the opportunity to stop and buy something, especially with young children or babies on your hands, and often the only choice when you do is junk.

I tend to keep breadsticks, dried fruit and plain biscuits always at hand. I always carry a small water bottle with me whenever I am out and about, as someone small always needs a drink. Remember to take snacks that travel well -that is, ones that are not breakable and don't bruise easily, and that can cope with a hot day and still look and taste good. Try to avoid taking sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks, as they will only create more mess and thirst, especially if it is a hot day.

Here are some ideas for healthy snacks which can save the day:

* Breadsticks

* Small mini packs of raisins or dried fruit, sultanas, bananas, apricots, apples (try to avoid the sticky ones such as pineapple and tropical fruits) * Cherry tomatoes * Crudites - sticks of carrot, celery and cucumber * Crisps and packet snacks (keep to the simple types or fingers will get very sticky) * Cheese straws or plain biscuits And finally...

Once you have gone to all the trouble of preparing, cooking and packing a picnic, don't despair if the weather lets you down. Continue with the picnic theme - if need be, put the blanket down in one of the rooms in the house and enjoy your picnic indoors, regardless of the weather.

It could become a teddy bears picnic or an impromptu party, and the children could invite their soft toys and dolls to enjoy the food and the fun. I have had to resort to this idea on several occasions and it has proved as popular as the outdoor experience. So just enjoy whatever the good old British climate throws at you!

Fiona Hamilton-Fairley is the principal of the Kids' Cookery School in London W3

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