Picnics are in. Here’s how to have a great one.
It is a truth generally acknowledged that food tastes better outside. Maybe the joy of eating outside somehow touches our hunter-gatherer roots. Maybe fresh air enhances the flavor and aroma — not to mention our moods. For whatever reason, picnics remain one of dining’s simple great, fun joys. But simple though they may be, there are certain keys to perfect picnics, and recipes that work better than others.
Not to toot my own horn, but I am a picnic aficionado. I love picnics. A lot. I love them in summer, sweating under the shade of a big tree with a caprese salad and a glass of wine. I love a snack picnic. A snack picnic really just means reading a book on a bench somewhere with some cheese crackers and fruit from a brown bag. I love a fall, and even winter, picnic: sipping hot drinks from a thermos while inhaling sandwiches and a slice of apple pie post-hike.
3 Keys to a Perfect Picnic (+ Recipes to Match)
1. The equipment.
Perfect picnic food means nothing if you cannot serve and eat it right. The absolute key here is to use lightweight equipment, since picnics mean carrying everything. Make sure that food stays temperature safe, gets served nicely, and can be cleaned up appropriately. Here’s a check list of the gear you need. Bonus points for lightweight, reusable, or compostable versions:
- A picnic blanket
- A picnic basket, with an icepack or two. I love these insulted, collapsable Picnic at Ascot baskets, currently on sale.
- A small cutting board
- Sheathed paring knife, or something similarly-sized
- Two disposable bags: One to use for trash, and one to put the dirty dishes in. You don’t want your nice picnic basket to get a mess when you pack up.
- Paper towels. Something always spills, and these make good extra napkins, too.
- Hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bug spray
- Cups, plates, and utensils — both serving and dining. Amazon has some very cute melamine picnic dish sets, and most supermarkets now carry compostable, disposable options.
- A corkscrew
2. The Food.
Eating is the main reason we’re sitting here on this blanket, flicking away ants. Many foods can become picnic foods just by putting them in a container and eating it outside. That said, principles to consider are:
- Food safety. In summer, food can get warm and spoil quickly. Even with good insulation and ice packs, try to stay away from sushi, tartare, fish, creamy or dairy-based foods, and the like. Sandwiches, pasta salad, wraps, hard cheeses, fruit, vegetables, crackers, baked goods, and charcuterie make better choices.
- Ease of eating. Picnics usually involve finger food, and always involve a slightly clumsy array of food storage containers and flimsy or picnic-size utensils and dishes. Watch out for sauces, dressings, melting things, and soups. You don’t want food to drip too much. Over-stuffed sandwiches easily fall apart. On the other hand, as noted above, thinner sandwiches; lightly-dressed salads; pastas; cheese, fruit, and charcuterie boards; crusty bread; and kebabs work very well. Whole fruit, cookies, and hand pies make excellent desserts.
- Drinks! You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget drinks. Water should always be present, for drinking, if not for light hand rinsing. Bring a small thermos or sealed insulated mug full of ice to chill them.
3. The Recipes.
Takeout is always an easy option, and supports local restaurants that may be struggling right now. That said, here are some recipes that make excellent picnic foods: delicious at room temperature, travel well, and taste great.
- Blueberry Hand Pies: Cute, individual pies bursting with sweet berries. What’s not to love?
- Summer Stone Fruit and Burrata Caprese: A sweeter, more elevated summer version of classic caprese
- Salad Pasta Salad: A perfect combination of pasta salad and green salad, everyone will love this crunchy, satisfying dish.
- Deviled Eggs: A timeless classic, perfectly prepared and easy to eat.
- Chocolate Chip Cookies: Nothing says easy, all-American dessert like these cookies, wholesome and chewy.
- Edamame & Parsley Hummus: Dips are an excellent picnic food. This one is non-dairy and delicious.
- Chicken Salad Sandwiches: Another classic recipe, chicken salad makes perfect main course for a lunch picnic