After what seemed like an endless winter, summer has finally broken through and heat and humidity have found us again. I’m not complaining one bit, and I promise I won’t. I haven’t even turned on the air conditioning yet. The windows are open, and the breezes are finding their way in.

With summer comes a variety of outside eating occasions from casual family picnics, backyard barbecues, neighborhood potlucks, reunions, tailgate meals at the ballpark and even meals eaten in the fields as farmers spend countless hours tending crops to feed their livestock.

My family spends a considerable amount of time each summer weekend at softball tournaments with our daughters. To keep travel costs down and nutrition levels up, we try to pack some meals and snacks along each weekend.

While meal planning out of a cooler and without access to a kitchen can be a bit challenging, it does not have to be boring. I am excited to shift the menu planning to summer meals that use fresh fruit, vegetables, cold pastas and tasty sandwiches. I will not allow myself to get into the rut of boring picnic food this year!

When planning your summer picnic or potluck menu, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Easy dishes don’t need to be bland. Sandwiches can easily become fancy by changing up the bread, the condiments and seasonings, the cheese and even the vegetables.

Think about using pesto, Italian seasoning or flavored mayonnaise on those ordinary sandwiches. One easy flavored mayonnaise recipe calls for just 1/2 cup mayo and 1/4 cup fresh, chopped basil. Just combine and spread on your favorite sandwich.

Another favorite sandwich topper is bacon mayonnaise. Start with a quarter-cup cooked and cooled bacon, chopped into coarse bits. Save the drippings from the bacon and combine with 3/4 cup plain mayonnaise. Sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon of smoked paprika and the bacon bits over the top and combine well. Refrigerate for up to four days.

As always, make food safety a priority in the summer. Keep hot things hot and cold things cold. Don’t risk an illness!

Janelle Thomas can be reached at janellethomas@charter.net.

Antipasto Salad Skewers

2 7-oz containers fresh Mozzarella balls

2 4-oz packages prosciutto

1/2 lb genoa salami, sliced thin

12-oz jar roasted red peppers

6-oz can black olives

1 bag of leaf lettuce, any kind

Lay out all ingredients on a cutting board. Alternate the ingredients onto the skewers in any pattern, adding lettuce leaves after every few ingredients. Drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette or serve with dressing for dipping on the side.

Notes: You can customize these kabobs any way you’d like. You could use turkey and ham and chunks of Parmesan or Cheddar, for example. Recipe and photo courtesy of boredfastfood.com.

Dill Pickle Chicken Salad

1 rotisserie chicken or about 4 C shredded or diced chicken

1 C diced dill pickles

1/3 C sliced green onions

8 oz cream cheese, softened

1/2 C mayonnaise

1 Tbsp dill pickle juice from the pickle jar

3/4 tsp dried dill

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

Add the chicken, diced dill pickles and green onion to a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine all the creamy dressing ingredients and stir together until smooth and combined. Pour over the chicken salad and stir together.

Let the chicken salad chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 to 8 hours before serving. It is much better when it is cold. Serve with croissants, rolls or lettuce leaves. Recipe courtesy of mainbolaku123.blogspot.com.

Easy Banana Split Sticks

3 bananas

1/4 lb cored pineapple

6 strawberries

1 C dipping chocolate

1/4 C chopped peanuts

12 popsicle sticks or skewers

Cut strawberries in half. For each strawberry half, cut an equal size piece of banana and pineapple. Place pineapple on first, then banana and strawberry last.

Place in freezer for 10 minutes. Line a tray with wax paper or parchment paper. Put chopped nuts in small plate to use for dipping. Melt chocolate by heating in microwave for 30 seconds, stirring and repeating until melted and smooth.

Dip cold fruit in chocolate, then into nuts, then place on prepared tray. For an added, fun mess, consider serving with whipped cream for dipping. Recipe and photo courtesy of frugalcouponliving.com.

Best Picnic Sandwich

1 loaf crusty French bread

1/2 C pesto, homemade or store-bought

1/2 lb Burrata cheese

10 good-sized basil leaves

10 roasted tomato halves

1/4 lb thinly sliced salami, optional

8 oz jarred roasted red peppers, drained

Using a serrated knife, slice the loaf of bread in half lengthwise. Spread the pesto on the bottom half of the loaf. Spread the Burrata on top of the pesto. Arrange the basil leaves down the length of the loaf and put half a roasted tomato on top of each basil leaf. If using salami, layer the salami on top of the roasted tomatoes. Layer pieces of roasted pepper as the final layer.

Top the layers with the top half of the bread loaf and insert toothpicks down the length of the sandwich about 2 inches apart. The toothpicks will hold the layers together. Slice between the toothpicks and serve. Makes 4 to 8 servings. Recipe and photo courtesy of somethingnewfordinner.com.

Southwest Black Bean and Corn Salad for a Crowd

3 to 4 cobs of fresh sweet corn

2 cans black beans

1 bell pepper

1 to 2 avocados

For the dressing:

3/4 C sour cream

3 Tbsp lime juice

2 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp honey

1/2 tsp cumin

1 heaping C cilantro

Generous pinch salt, adjust to taste

Extra lime and cilantro for garnish, optional

Shuck 3 to 4 cobs of fresh sweet corn. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the sweet corn, cover, reduce heat to medium and boil for 5 minutes or until corn is tender. Drain and let the corn cool. Once it has cooled, cut kernels off with a knife. Set corn aside. Alternatively, prepare 1 bag of frozen sweet corn.

Dice 1 large bell pepper. Drain and rinse 2 15-oz cans of black beans. Cut 1 to 2 avocados in half. Dice the avocados into small pieces.

For the dressing: Add 3/4 cup sour cream, 3 tablespoons lime juice, 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 teaspoon honey (or sugar), 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1 heaping cup of cilantro, and a generous pinch of salt to a food processor. Pulse until completely combined. Adjust ingredients to taste.

Add the black beans, corn, peppers and avocado to a large serving bowl. Drizzle as much or as little of the dressing over the salad as you like. Toss to completely coat the vegetables in the dressing. Add more salt if necessary. Garnish with an extra squeeze of lemon and cilantro (optional).

Serving suggestions: Serve on its own as a salad. Serve as a snack with tortilla chips or crackers. Use as a topping over grilled chicken or as a topping for burritos, tacos or eggs. Makes 20 servings. Recipe and photo courtesy of therusticfoodie.com.