How to Plan the Perfect Picnic

Prepare for the ultimate outdoor feast with these easy packing tips and recipe ideas. 
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Relax, It's Just a Picnic

A picnic can be as simple or sophisticated as any other meal. Before you plan the menu and make your lists, think about who's coming, and what vibe you're going for: A spread for a crowd that needs to last through a hot afternoon without wilting (or worse)? An elegant birthday dinner repast in an orchard? No matter what kind of picnic you're creating, unless you are in your backyard you'll need to be as prepared as a Boy Scout, with a full-on checklist. Napkins and wine openers don’t grow on trees, after all.

The Luggage

Perhaps you have a wonderful old-fashioned picnic basket — or perhaps you'll just go for some sturdy, flat-bottomed canvas bagsand a cooler. It's a good idea to have one container (or more if needed) that will keep things consistently chilled, preferably insulated, with the addition of some frozen ice packs. Plastic bins and boxes are also possible alternatives to sturdy bags.

The Food

There are no set "right foods" to bring to a picnic, but there are certainly dishes to avoid. These are not just painfully obvious items like ice cream or tempura, but also those deviled eggs that looked so pretty in the plastic container at home, but look more like egg salad once the lid comes off at the picnic. You want sturdy, you want simple, and you want food that requires very little hands-on action at the picnic itself. You want items that won't get soggy, that taste great at room temperature and that are either finger or fork foods. Read on for some suggestions of what fares well in transport. And keep in mind that for many of these foods, that chilled cooler is critical.

Get the Recipe: Warm Picnic Burritos ("Burritos De Machaca")

The Appetizers

Most picnics don't necessarily have the appetizer-salad-main course-dessert flow of a regular indoor meal. It's quite acceptable and lovely that someone might be munching on a cold chicken leg while others are eating brownies. But if you plan on a more leisurely afternoon in the great outdoors, you may want to put out some things to nibble on before the main course.

A few crostini or bruschetta toppings (like goat cheese and ramp chimichurri, or simple roasted garlic) and some toasted baguette slices brushed with olive oil make for a simple do-it-yourself crostini spread. Wedges of vegetable frittata (pictured) or smoked salmon-and-cream cheese frittata can also be picked up by hand.

Keep It Simple

Indoors or out, there is never anything wrong with a great cheese board, with sliced bread or crackers and maybe some olives, cornichons, fruit jams, nuts and dried fruit.

Dips and an assortment of cut-up vegetables for dunking are also an easy way to kick off a picnic spread: Try Creamy Avocado DipEdamame Pesto Dip or Sour Cream and Onion Hummus. Or, pack up a fun salsa like Pineapple Jalapeno Mint Salsa or Almost Famous Corn Salsa and some tortilla or rice chips for dipping.

Vegetable Sides and Salads

If you are bringing delicate green lettuce salads, pack the dressing separately and toss the salads when you get there. Otherwise, veer in the direction of sturdier vegetable sides and salads.

Grain and Pasta Sides

A hearty salad featuring barley, millet, farro, spelt, rice, couscous, wheat berries or good old pasta is a great anchor to a picnic spread. These days, with whole grains very much in the spotlight, there are so many gorgeous recipes to choose from. And never forget about potato salad, especially mayo-free ones, which hold up well against the heat.

Main Courses

Again, all of this is subjective, since many of the aforementioned vegetable and grain dishes and salads can function very well as "main dishes," especially for the vegetarians in the mix. It's all about what you are happy eating cold or at room temperature!

Dessert

You’ll probably want to leave the layer cake and juicy fruit pie at home. Brownies, bars, cookies — that’s usually the way to go.

The Drinks

Here are the basic choices:

1) An assortment of things in cans or bottles. (Check to make sure that glass bottles are welcome if you are picnicking in a public place.)

2) A thermos or two of prepared drinks: iced tea, lemonade, a sangria with or without alcohol. Put in plenty of ice to keep it chilled.

The Wine

If you are thinking wine, you might want to think boxed wine — if you haven't tried them in a while, you'll be very happy to know there are some excellent options on the market these days. Try MaipeLa Petite FrogBota BoxWine Cube or Bandit. There is also Seven Daughters, which comes in cans.

Disposable or Reusable?

This is definitely a question, and one that only you can answer. For a smaller group, consider reusables, which are often prettier and possibly more earth-friendly (though washing all of those reusable plates, utensils and cups also is something to factor in, time- and energy-wise). For a big crowd, disposable may be the way to go. Or, maybe you want to choose a combination.

Packing

It’s always a good idea to lay out everything you are bringing so that you can pack it with the heaviest and sturdiest things on the bottom, and the lighter and more fragile items on top. This is the only sure-fire way to make sure that you don’t find yourself needing to unpack and pack again, or putting the watermelon on top of the cupcakes. If possible, put the picnic blanket on top — that’s the first thing you want to unpack! And when you are packing perishable foods in a cooler, make sure they go in chilled, and with plenty of ice or ice packs to keep them cold. Larger ice packs or chunks of ice stay frozen longer.  

At the Picnic Site

Keep coolers in the shade so that the items inside stay colder longer. And try to serve perishable items, especially mayonnaise-based items, on a blanket or table in the shade.

Make a Checklist

What could be worse than preparing and packing a delicious meal, only to realize once you get to your destination that you forgot the plates or forks? Make a checklist a few days in advance — it's the best way to guarantee you won't forget anything.

Essential Picnic Checklist