Summertime is play time, and that means we’re on the go more than ever. Long days lend themselves to after-work jaunts to the park, and warm weekends invite us to head for the beach or an overnight campout. With all the fun to be had, who wants to spend hours in the kitchen cooking dinner? Fast food is often the order of the day, but “fast” can mean lots of different things—some good, some not so good. Even if you enjoy an occasional meal from the local drive-through window, what you really crave are healthy meals you can make in minutes at home and take along, or put together out in the wilds from items you harvest from your cooler. The same is true for our canine family members, who love those summer outings—and tasty, nutritious food—as much as anyone.

So how do you grab a healthy meal for your dog when everyone’s waiting to pile into the car? Are there pre-packaged foods that can meet your standards for wholesomeness and good nutrition? Fortunately, there are—up to a point. While nothing takes the place of food prepared fresh in your kitchen, knowing what to look for in a packaged food will enable you to avoid the most troublesome additives in favor of quality ingredients. When you have a bag of top-notch packaged food on hand, and a repertoire of quick and easy meals you can make yourself, you’ll always be ready to pack a picnic basket that everyone in the family will be drooling over.

The single most important factor in choosing a commercial dog food (and the same principle applies to cat food) is the consciousness of the manufacturer. Visit websites or read product brochures, and look for companies that promise to use only human grade ingredients—or organic ingredients if possible—and absolutely no chemical additives. Many add herbs, enzymes, or probiotics to their formulas. Your local health food store can be a good source of products made by manufacturers with this level of commitment to quality—but if possible, do your own research to be sure. Above all, learn to scrutinize the labels. Keep in mind that businesses that put more stock in marketing than nutrition can make the most questionable food sound impressive.

Here are a few things to look out for on packaged food labels:

Common Dog and Cat Food Ingredients

Label reads:What It MeansComments
Meat (chicken, fish, beef, lamb, venison)Flesh from slaughtered mammals; derived from muscle tissue, including heart and tongue.Contains 60% moisture, so it’s more common in canned foods; “meat” is superior to “meat meal” (see below).
Poultry and meat by-productsParts of slaughtered animals, other than the meat; may includes lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, intestines, head, and feet. (Excludes feathers, except in amounts that are unavoidable in good processing practices.)While unappealing to most of us, these are parts eaten by dogs in the wild, and inclusion in dog food is considered suitable for the species. However, these should not be the only source of protein in a food.
Meat meal, Meat and bone meal, Meat by-product meal, Poultry by-product mealRendered animal tissues, supposedly exclusive of hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, feathers, or stomach contents, except when unavoidable in “good processing practices.”Avoid whenever possible! Quality is questionable and harder to control. Named meals (chicken, fish, etc.) are preferable to unnamed meals (such as “meat meal” or “bone meal”).

Common Dog and Cat Food Additives

Label reads:What It Means
Processing aidsEmulsifiers and lubricants; anti-caking, firming, and drying agents; oxidizing and reducing agents; stabilizers and thickeners; chemically modified plant material; polyphosphates
Appearance and taste enhancersColoring agents; animal digests; sweeteners; artificial flavorings; texturizers; grease
Preservatives – chemicalBHT; BHA; ethoxyquin
Preservatives – naturalRosemary or clove oil; ascorbic acid (vitamin C); tocopherols (vitamin E)
Miscellaneous natural additivesProbiotics (for digestion); yucca extract (to reduce fecal odor; may also help reduce inflammation in arthritis); chicory extract (stimulates healthy intestinal bacteria); various herbs

If all these additives and ambiguous labels seem overwhelming, take heart. You’re right to be concerned and cautious, but if you’re careful where you shop, and do some homework ahead of time, you can choose a food that’s perfectly acceptable for a weekend getaway.

Then again—if you’re feeling a little creative it’s a snap to whip up some gourmet fast food right out of your own kitchen. Here are a few of Savannah’s favorite recipes. (Please keep in mind that these recipes are not nutritionally complete on their own, nor are they intended for use on a daily basis. They’re offered here as occasional choices within the context of a well-balanced, varied nutritional plan. All recipes have been taste-tested by several very eager canine food editors.)

Lunchbox Peanut Butter Sandwich
This one is really simple. Layer slices of whole-grain bread with peanut butter, and pack the stack in your picnic basket with a small cup of plain soy yogurt and an apple. When it’s time for lunch, break the sandwich up and toss it in a bowl with the soy yogurt and the apple, diced. That’s it.

Tempeh ’n Toast Break a few slices of whole-grain bread into a bowl and moisten with soy or rice milk. (Toasting the bread is optional.) Add a bit of spirulina or fresh alfalfa (also optional). Top with tempeh fresh off the grill (or sautéed in your skillet). Yum.

California Cuisine
Your dog will be the coolest canine in the county. Toss tofu with raw rolled oats or barley. Add the juice from the tofu to moisten. Add spinach leaves, alfalfa sprouts, or a sprinkle of spirulina.

My Dish Is Your Dish
This one may be the easiest of all, but it assumes a certain level of healthful dining on your part. Simply share whatever you’re eating with your buddy. If your own diet has evolved beyond Twinkies and soda, chances are that if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you!

Adapted from The Complete Holistic Dog Book: Home Health Care for Our Canine Companions by Jan Allegretti and Katy Sommers, D.V.M. Copyright © 2003 by Jan Allegretti and Katy Sommers.