If you plan to spend a good chunk of your summer at the community pool this year, you might figure your meal options are reduced to two choices: Order from the local carryout or grab a bite at the pool snack bar.
But a diet of burgers and pizza for the next three months could make your swimsuit awfully tight come August. A more healthful and more economical answer is to pack meals yourself.
"You get so much fresher food and you have complete control over what the kids are eating," says Sara Deseran, author of Picnics: Delicious Recipes for Outdoor Entertaining (Chronicle Books, 2004, $14.95).
The San Francisco writer confesses to fond memories of hanging out at the snack bar of her grandparents' country-club pool, but says, "Now the appeal of the hot dog has worn off."
Although even devoted cooks may have trouble spending time in the kitchen in June, July and August, homemade meals don't need to be complicated. Marinate some chicken wings overnight. Assemble a sandwich. Mix up a refreshing fruit drink. Much of the work can be done in advance, so come Saturday morning, you just need to throw it all in the cooler.
"You need to pick things that won't disintegrate in the sun," says Deseran, who recommends a sampling of finger foods to please the grown-ups and the kids. "I love to set up a smorgasbord of things."
Cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto is a classic combination perfect for outdoor buffets. Sandwiches of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil on a baguette will hold up for hours. Serve them alongside Ming Tsai's mango salsa with blue corn chips and you have the makings of a meal.
Sascha Wolhandler, owner of Sascha's Catering and Sascha's 527 Cafe on North Charles Street, says gazpacho makes another easy summer meal. No need to heat up the kitchen, just puree vegetables and tomato juice in a blender. Add a little cumin and chili peppers and tell the kids it's Mexican soup, she says.
"Taking gazpacho in a great big thermos is refreshing, and it's very low-fat, which everyone in a bikini is concerned about," she says.
Round out the meal with chicken fingers, wraps or deli meats and cheese on a skewer, she says.
Jerry Edwards, president and corporate chef of Chef's Expressions catering in Timonium, recommends a frozen fruit soup that will perform double duty as an ice pack in a cooler. Just blend peaches or strawberries with honey, mix in a little yogurt, and freeze in bags. "The kids think of it as a slushy, but it's very nutritional," he says.
Another kid-friendly dish is chicken lollipops made from marinated chicken wings. They can be baked quickly and packed in a picnic basket, he says.
And, of course, there are sandwiches and wraps. A familiar ham and cheese can be dressed up with a plum chutney, says Betty Rosbottom, who offers the recipe in her latest cookbook, The Big Book of Backyard Grilling (Chronicle Books, 2004, $19.95). Just combine plums with a Granny Smith apple, and cook with sugar, vinegar, ginger, garlic, orange zest and cinnamon. "It will keep in the refrigerator for days," she says.
Stick with finger foods for dessert as well. Bar cookies and poundcakes are good options that hold up well in the summer heat. Or pack some skewers and melon cubes. You'll be able to make a fruit kebab faster than you can say "Marco Polo."
Eating, swimming and safety
Conventional wisdom always held that you should stay out of the water until at least a half-hour after eating. Today, that is no longer the rule.
"Despite what Mom has always told us, ... there is no specific time you must wait before heading back into the water," says Stacey Grissom, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
The most important consideration, she says, is how you feel. If you have eaten too much and are sluggish, wait a bit. "Going back in before you properly digested your meal could make one susceptible to cramping and exhaustion, both of which could interfere with your ability to swim and stay safe in the water," she says.
Playing it safe with food
Here are tips from the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods:
* Pack moist towelettes or soap and water to clean your hands and surfaces often.
* Pack food in a well-insulated cooler with plenty of ice or ice packs to keep the temperature below 40 degrees.
* Transport the cooler in the back seat of your air-conditioned car instead of in your hot trunk.
* Don't leave food outside in hot weather (90 degrees or above) for more than one hour.
Spicy Mango Salsa
Makes 6 cups
5 large, ripe mangoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 -inch dice
2 medium red onions, cut into 1/4 -inch dice
2 red jalapenos, stemmed and minced
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons sambal or hot pepper sauce
1/3 cup fresh lime juice (from 6 to 8 limes)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a large nonreactive bowl, combine the mangoes, onions, jalapenos, ginger, sambal and lime juice, and blend gently. Season with salt and pepper. Use or refrigerate.
-- Ming Tsai, "Simply Ming" (Clarkson Potter, 2003, $32.50)