When you eat lunch, where are you? Whether you’re on your couch, at the office beneath humming fluorescent lights, or hunched over your kitchen sink (no judgment), lunch isn’t always the most romantic of your daily meals. So why not make it more picturesque by stepping outside? The sound of chirping birds and the feeling of a gentle breeze in your hair can elevate last night’s leftovers to fine-dining cuisine. And while al fresco dining is enjoyable, its benefits extend even further: eating outdoors is actually good for your mind and body, too. Keep reading to learn about the holistic health benefits of noshing in nature and get tips for making your next picnic your best one.
The Benefits of Eating Outdoors
What’s your ideal picnic? A red-checkered blanket on a green hilltop with a wicker basket, overflowing with gourmet sandwiches, fresh fruit, and a bottle of wine? Or would you rather be on the beach with your toes in the surf and a cocktail in your hand? Even if you’re simply content sitting on the back patio with a good book and a salad, picnics are the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon — and they’re good for you, too. Here’s how eating outdoors benefits your mind and body.
It’s good for your brain.
That’s right — just enjoying leisure time outside, even when eating a meal, may have protective properties for your brain. A study published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry found that study participants who spent a short time outside, even without exercising or getting a lot of sunlight, experienced significant boosts in brain health and overall wellbeing.
Brain scans also showed that those who spent time outdoors had improved moods and stronger gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with a reduced risk of psychiatric disorders. “Our results show that our brain structure and mood improve when we spend time outdoors,” said the study’s lead researcher Simone Kühn. “This most likely also affects concentration, working memory, and the psyche as a whole.”
It’s good for your body.
When you eat outdoors, you’re supporting your physical health in a variety of ways. “It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light… and it is not only light but sunlight they want,” said the founder of modern nursing herself, Florence Nightingale.
Eating outdoors is a quick, easy way to get fresh air and sunlight at the same time. It may also be better for your digestion and overall health. Research in Scientific Reports notes that listening to the sounds of nature may greatly decrease stress levels, which can reduce the risk of gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. You might also eat healthier when dining al fresco: A study in Foods journal shows that those who ate in natural setting were more relaxed and chose healthier, more vegetable-based dishes than those who didn’t.
Eating outdoors even strengthens your immunity. When eating outdoors, you’re exposing your body to a wide array of natural bacteria. This may lead to a strengthened, diverse gut microbiome, which in turn can lead to stronger immunity, say the pros at Hyperbiotics. And because you’re less stressed when you’re eating outside, your body switches to “rest and digest mode,” focusing on processes that aren’t prioritized when you’re stressed, like strengthening your immune system.
It’s an overall better dining experience.
Having a picnic is good for your body and brain — but did you know your food may taste better when enjoyed outside, too? Think about the last time you ate something cooked over a campfire under the stars. You probably remember the food’s texture and distinctive smoky flavors — more so than when you ate the same foods cooked indoors. There’s a potential reason for that: Pollution generated by urban living can cause chronic sinus issues and congestion, which may impact your ability to taste. But regularly spending time eating in fresh, clean air (take a weekend road trip if you live in the thick of a city!) may help you taste your food better, since it contains fewer man-made pollutants.
How To Have The Ultimate Picnic
The only downside to eating outdoors is that it can be uncomfortable. You can’t control the temperature or breeze, and sitting on the cold, hard ground isn’t ideal for your back or knees. Want to get the benefits without sacrificing your sanity? Check out these tips.
Be mindful in your planning.
Eating outdoors may be a fun, spontaneous break from your routine — but in order to be comfortable, you must prepare beforehand. You don’t need to bring your entire kitchen, says author and picnic pro, Lia Beltrami, who wrote Picnic: The Art of Living (Buy from Amazon, $15), but you should think about the tools you’ll need when eating outdoors. If you’re not sitting at a table, you’ll need some kind of support, like trays. Do you want to sit on the ground? If not, bring pillows or chairs. Is the food you’re bringing hot or cold? Bring the proper tools you’ll need for whatever you’re eating. And consider using disposable plates and cutlery so you don’t have to tote dirty dishes back home.
Choose your setting wisely.
“Choosing the right place is 50 percent of the success of a picnic,” says Beltrami. The place you want to go may be beautiful, but you can’t lay out your blanket just anywhere. Consider things like the wind, shade, and insects. If it’s a windy day, avoid positioning your dining setup out in the open — sit behind a large tree, wall, or other kind of barrier so the breeze doesn’t upturn your plate. If it’s a warm day, find shade; if there’s a chill in the air, settle in a sunny spot. And be on the lookout for ant hills and other potential pest-filled areas to avoid uninvited guests.
As spring continues to bloom and summer approaches, the weather is perfect for picnicking. Pack your basket (and sunscreen!) and enjoy.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
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