Weekly Q & A - Summer Potluck Solution

Whew!  It’s heating up to be a hot 4th of July!  This week’s question seemed just perfect for a holiday when family picnics and outdoor parties are sure to happen for a lot of us.  Read on for a fun potluck-related discussion.


A:  Hello there, #HALP!  Dude, I FEEL YOUR PAIN.  With a crazy schedule, it can be SO hard to get something together in a short time for potlucks.  With kids, it’s even harder.  A lot of times we can find ourselves just grabbing a bag of chips, or some store-bought cookies, or something ready-made to take, which (don’t get me wrong!) is totally FINE.   But, sometimes that means you end up with a lot of the same items and a not-so-exciting potluck selection.  Ever been to a potluck where it’s like meat + 40 different desserts?  Yeah.  So have I.

The good news is, I have the PERFECT super-fast potluck solution for you. 

It’s cheap.

It’s easy.

It only has one ingredient.

It’s gluten free.

It’s dairy free.

It’s nut free.

It's kid-friendly.

And most people love it.

Behold! 

  The wonderful  watermelon .

The wonderful watermelon.

Watermelon is truly your summer potluck solution.  Like if you had an "easy-button" and hit it, a watermelon would immediately fall onto your kitchen counter in front of you.

We all know watermelon is totally delicious, but I’m going to take this opportunity to regale you with reasons why watermelons are summer superfoods.  (Also, full disclosure, they are a favorite of mine.  I may or may not have eaten three entire watermelons by myself in the last 8 days.  Don’t judge.) 

Watermelons are:

1.  Hydrating

Watermelons are, on average, about 92% water.  Snacking on watermelon on hot summer days can help prevent dehydration, as each bite is full of hydrating juice.  Hydrating snacks can be a great choice for young children, who may be having so much fun playing outside that they forget to stop to take a drink.

2.  Antioxidant Powerhouses

Watermelon is an amazing source of several antioxidants.  Antioxidants are helpful compounds found in plant-based foods that help protect our bodies from free radicals. Free radicals are reactive molecules that can disrupt and damage proteins in our bodies.  Two helpful antioxidants that are plentiful in watermelon are lycopene and beta-carotene.   

Lycopene is a carotenoid phytochemical that acts as a powerful antioxidant, and watermelon is FULL of it!  Studies suggest that lycopene may play an important role in protecting our bodies against cancer and heart disease(1). 

If you’ve heard of lycopene before, you probably associate it with a different red food – the tomato.  It’s true that tomatoes are rich in lycopene; but some research shows that our bodies have an easier time absorbing lycopene from watermelon.  Interestingly, the lycopene in tomatoes becomes more bioavailable when tomatoes are cooked.  For example, it is easier for our bodies to extract and absorb lycopene from tomato sauces, pastes, and stews than it is from fresh tomato.  Watermelon, on the other hand, doesn’t have this limitation(1). Our bodies are able to extract and absorb lycopene from fresh watermelon – no problem.  So, during these hot summer months when you don’t want to heat up the stove and cook with tomatoes, you can get a heat-free lycopene fix from watermelon.

The other major antioxidant in watermelon is beta-carotene.  This substance is a provitamin A carotenoid, meaning that it will convert to vitamin A in the body.  Vitamin A is important for eye health.  It also plays a very important role in growth and development in children and adolescents, so it’s a great choice for the kiddos. 

Like lycopene, some research suggests that food-bound beta-carotene (from food, not from a pill) may reduce the risks of some types of cancer(2). Some studies have examined how long the antioxidants in watermelon remain active in the body.  Research has demonstrated that a single serving of watermelon juice can have potent anti-oxidant effects for up to an hour and a half after consumption(3).   

3.  Great for reducing muscle soreness

Just a few years ago, nutrition researchers looked at how watermelon juice may be an important functional food for athletes.  Watermelon is rich in citrulline, which is an amino-acid that plays a role in muscle and tissue health. 

In the study, athletes were provided with watermelon juice as a recovery beverage following workouts.  The watermelon juice turned out to be a great functional food, effectively improving recovery heart rate and reducing muscle soreness for a full 24-hour period(4). Researchers also looked at whether the same results could be achieved by providing a citrulline supplement.  Interestingly, the research revealed that the body is able to use more citrulline from watermelon juice than from a supplement(4).  (Isn't food just amazing?) 

4.  Low on the glycemic load scale

If you’re someone who follows a low glycemic load (GL) eating pattern, watermelon is an excellent choice of fruit.  Generally, foods with a glycemic load of less than 10 are considered “low” GL, and those with a GL of 20 or higher are considered “high”(5). Watermelon comes in at a low GL score of 4.  This is partly because of watermelon’s high fiber and water contents.  How awesome that watermelon is both low glycemic load and tastes as sweet as dessert!  (Looking at you, my low-GL PCOS sisters.)

5.  Really, really easy to prepare.

There are a zillion ways you can serve watermelon.  In fact, there are some delicious recipes out there for watermelon soups, grilled watermelon, and boozy tequila-soaked watermelon. 

BUT – getting back to the question at hand, the easiest and fastest way to serve watermelon for a potluck is to just cut that sucker up and get on with it. 

In less than 15 minutes, you can wash, cut, and contain a whole melon for transport to the potluck table.

First, you have got to WASH your melon.  

 Yes, I said wash it.  Thoroughly.

Yes, I said wash it.  Thoroughly.

People often are shocked when I say this, but it’s true; and I have a harrowing tale of severe food poisoning from an un-washed melon I could tell you, but for now I’m going to spare you the details.  Suffice it to say, I missed three days of work. I was convinced for several hours that I had a GI bleed and was going to need cameras put into places we don't want to think about in the middle of this food discussion. Wash your melons. Trust me.

You see, watermelon, being a natural food that grows outdoors, can have little microbial buddies (read: germs that will give you the stomach grip of a lifetime) clinging to the exterior of the melon.  If you don’t wash off the outside, you will carry those microbes on your knife through the center of the melon when you cut it.  That might not seem like much, but it only takes one bacterium to multiply into literally millions of bacteria in just a few hours. 

I think the easiest way to wash a melon is to place it in a colander in the sink and give it a good scrubbing with your favorite vegetable wash and some nice cool water.  The colander is helpful for positioning the melon and keeping it from wallowing on the surface of your germ-laden sink (a discussion for another day).  You pick your favorite method – just wash the thing off before you cut it.

Next, use a large, very sharp knife to cut off a slice of the rind to create a “flat side” on the melon. 

This allows you to sit the melon on its flat side so it won’t roll around while you’re cutting all the way through it.  A giant rolling melon is a great way to cut yourself.  Be safe, create a flat area.

 This small, shallow, controlled cut is a little safer than trying to slice all the way through a rolling melon.

This small, shallow, controlled cut is a little safer than trying to slice all the way through a rolling melon.

Placing the watermelon on the flat side, cut through it to create two halves.

 Does this remind anyone else of those cell-division pictures from 9th grade biology?

Does this remind anyone else of those cell-division pictures from 9th grade biology?

Then, place these halves flat-side down, and cut through again so that you have four big wedges.

Use a narrower, but still very sharp knife to cut out the watermelon’s pink flesh, and then cut into large chunks.

There is no need to make a bunch of wedges or cubes that are the exact same size – just cut that thing up!  Watermelon holds its shape well in transport. 

Plus, by cutting the flesh and not carrying the rind, you make it a lot lighter-weight for transport. 

Additionally, no one has to worry about throwing away the rind at the potluck – they can just chow down on the delicious melon with wild abandon.

The container you see here is a re-useable plastic container, which works great for potluck melon carrying.  You feel free to use whatever you want, but keep in mind that plastic will be lighter-weight than glass, for ease of transport. 

I recommend taking tongs, as they make it so easy to pick up the watermelon pieces for serving.  My favorite trick is to put a return-address label on the handle so you can figure out which tongs are yours at the end of the party!

 Notice the watermelon juice still on the table -- this was a delicious melon.

Notice the watermelon juice still on the table -- this was a delicious melon.

Once you’ve cut up the melon, try to keep it cold. 

It’s not as temperature sensitive as some pot-luck foods, but it shouldn’t sit out at room temperature for more than about 2 hours.  Cover it and keep it in the refrigerator to keep it fresh and safe, or sit it on top of some cooler blocks or ice if it needs to stay out longer than that. 

It’s a good idea to keep a food thermometer on hand for pot-lucks to make sure your food stays safe to eat – cold items should be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to stay out of the danger zone.

Hopefully this suggestion solves your pot-luck conundrum.  Now you have a quick and easy option, AND you can tell all your friends that you’re doing them a favor by bringing a food with so many health benefits! 

That’s all for this week – everyone have a Happy 4th of July!

-Anna

P.S.  Do YOU have a food or nutrition question you’d like answered?  Please send your questions to anna@foodsmartsnutrition.com, or leave a comment below. 


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Reference List:

1. Edwards A, Vinyard B, Wiley E, et al. Consumption of watermelon juice increases plasma concentrations of lycopene and beta-carotene in humans. J Nutr. 2003; 133(4): 1043-1050.

2. McGuire M, Beerman, K.  Vitamin A and the Carotenoids. In: Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food. Belmont, CA: Thomson; 2007: 437-446.

3. Liu RH. Dietary bioactive compounds and their health implications. J Food Sci. 2013; 78(s1): A18-A25.

4. Tarazona M, Alacid F, Carrasco M, et al.  Watermelon juice: Potential functional drink for sore muscle relief in athletes. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2013, 61 (31), pp 7522–7528

5. Atkinson F, Foster-Powell, K, Brand-Miller, J. International tables of glycemic index and glycemic load values. Diabetes Care. 2008; 31(12): 2281-2283.