The Quintessential Party in the Park

Getting together outside is an elemental part of the human existence. Here are the recipes and tips you need to get it right — plus some of our favorite stories about summer reunions.

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August 27, 2021

Photo by: Matt Armendariz

Matt Armendariz

One of the signs that summer is surely here is a group of people gathered together in a local park with music wafting through the air and a grill sizzling with food to share. A few paces over, blankets are spread and friends are having a picnic feast. These sights and sounds remind us that public parks are the backyard that belongs to all of us. For families, it’s an easy location for a reunion. The splash pads, the grill and even public restrooms cover the basics — all that’s left is to plan the party food. After a long year apart, the park becomes a backdrop for reaffirming the connections that sustain us and the simple joy of being in the company of our family and friends.

To support you in soaking up more of the sun, we’re sharing a menu made for a party in the park. There are Romel Bruno's grilled chicken pita sandwiches with a tangy white sauce designed for easy eating as you wait for the wiffle ball game to queue up. A citrusy chickpea and broccoli salad is the colorful vegan side we’re guessing might steal the show, and a margarita-inspired watermelon salad with creamy, salty bites of feta keeps everyone hydrated in the heat. Since it’s a party, we’re also thinking about drinks: For this get-together a family-friendly minty peach tea from Stephanie Gravalese can be made ahead and packed up for easy transportation. And because a sweet treat is not to be left out, make up a batch of gooey blackberry magic bars and watch them disappear as sticky fingers and blackberry-stained smiles take their place.

Along with a menu and a few pointers on how to pull your party in the park together, we’re sharing stories on how the park and outdoor spaces become a character in the story of how we gather together. Both Latria N. Graham and Jesse Sparks share their experience in the essays below.

As we enter the final stretch of summer, consider this your invitation to make a party in the park a must on the summer bucketlist. Don’t overthink it. Gather up your people, find a sunny spot, spread the blankets, unfold the chairs, and cheers to the sheer pleasure of spending time together on a beautiful day in the park. — Hali Bey Ramdene, who guest-edited this package for FoodNetwork.com.

The Menu

These recipes are perfect for eating outside — they're easy to pack and even easier to share.

Peach and Muddled Mint Tea Punch

This punch is perfect for a picnic on the go, highlighting peak peach season with sprigs of garden-fresh mint. You can pull together this punch the night before your outing to let the flavors of the peaches and muddled mint deepen. Don’t forget the ice! — Stephanie Gravalese

Salty Watermelon Margarita Salad

Summery watermelon salads are a staple when the heat arrives, but this rendition has a few tricks up its sleeves. Taking inspiration from a margarita cocktail, we start off by quick-pickling the cucumbers to bring in a salty-tangy crunch and then toss everything with an orange-and-lime vinaigrette and heaps of creamy feta. — Hali Bey Ramdene

Coriander and Cumin Chicken Pita with Cucumber Salad and White Sauce

As a native New Yorker, I grew up eating food from the halal carts that are on every corner in the city. This summery chicken pita with cucumber salad is inspired by the flavors from these carts, using a few techniques that make it easy for an outdoor get-together. Everything can be prepared beforehand, with the final elemtns coming together quickly the day of for a flavorful dish minus all the hassle. — Romel Bruno

Citrus-Marinated Broccoli and Chickpea Salad

Not every salad needs to rely on lettuce — and this colorful veggie-packed dish proves the point with color, crunch and a hefty dose of herbs. Marinated broccoli and chickpea make up the bulk of the base, keeping the salad hearty without being heavy. Fresh zucchini and tomatoes add color and texture, and a light and refreshing blend of herbs, garlic and citrus juice bring everything together. — Hali Bey Ramdene

Gooey Blackberry Coconut Magic Bars

Magic bars — that iconic recipe on the back of the condensed milk can — has been a longtime favorite for holidays and gatherings. This recipe swaps out the traditional graham cracker crust for salty pretzels, ups the coconut and adds plump, seasonal blackberries to bring in some summer flare. These bars will leave you with sticky fingers, so be sure to pack napkins! — Hali Bey Ramdene

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487844723

Sunsetting over Telegraph Hill Park, London, England

Photo by: Laurie Noble/Getty

Laurie Noble/Getty

5 Tips For a "Leave No Trace" Picnic

Throwing a party in a park always requires a little set-up….and a lot of clean-up. It’s easy for some decorations or dirty paper plates to get left behind, but some advance planning can make it easier to follow the Leave No Trace principles to have minimal impact on your surroundings. Keep these in mind to leave the park in good shape for the next picnic:

BYO Trash Bags

The easiest way to avoid littering is to ensure there’s a place for trash to go. Sure, the park probably has trash cans somewhere... maybe by the bathrooms? But keeping a bag visible will help everyone remember to dispose of their paper plates and napkins throughout the day, cutting down on potential littering and nighttime clean-up. We like to bring two bags — one for trash, the other for recycling — for ultra seamless disposal.

Appoint a Clean-Up Crew

Tidying up the party spot shouldn’t fall on the host alone. Luckily, delegating the responsibility is a great way to include kids, especially if stickers or a DIY badge is involved. Ask your crew to scan the area a few times throughout the day to pick up any paper plates that didn’t make it into the trash can.

Avoid Toting Trash to the Park

It’s tempting to throw everything you’ll need for the party in a tote bag and call it a day. But taking a few minutes to remove any unnecessary packaging (think: plastic shopping bags, boxes of individual snacks) means you’ll have less to toss at the end of the day.

Leave What You Find

Pine cones, flowers, and other park flora are great to look at — not to take home. After all, they’re meant to be shared with the whole neighborhood! These plants are also integral parts of the park’s mini ecosystem, so leaving them behind for bees to pollinate will help ensure the park thrives for years to come.

Skip The Balloons

Balloons are undeniably festive … and undeniably likely to float away on the breeze. Try hanging colorful garlands, signs, or streamers to set the mood and keep the skies clear.

3 Essentials For Hosting a Park Party

Park parties are the perfect low-stress, high-reward hosting situation...at least in theory. In reality, all that time spent outdoors without many amenities can translate into bug bites and sunburns. Here’s the inside scoop: you don’t need too much to make a park picnic feel thoughtful. These are our must-haves:

Keep Cool With a Cooler

Bring a cooler piled high with ice to keep your guests’ BYO beers and sodas frosty all day long (plus any other perishable goodies). But wait, did someone bring water? In our experience, the odds are low, so be sure to stock some water bottles too. Hydration is essential, especially in the late summer heat.

Ward Off Bugs and Rays

Even if you manage to stake out a prime shade spot, sunblock deserves a permanent place in your picnic bag. It’s unlikely you’ll stay in one place for long, and this way you won’t leave the park with a sunburn as a souvenir. Throw in your favorite bug spray to ward off mosquitos and other insects that thrive in parks, especially as the sun starts to set. Bonus points if you bring enough to share with your whole group too.

Prepare for Leftovers

Leftovers are real, no matter how much you meal plan. So why not plan ahead for that too? Throw a few extra containers and totes into a shopping bag before you leave the house so you’ll be able to send your guests home with those extra hot dogs and burgers.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©Copyright 2015

Matt Armendariz, Copyright 2015

3 Ways to Make Store-Bought Dessert Better Than Homemade

Summer is too short for us to spend all day inside sweating over a hot oven. So when it comes to whipping up party-worthy desserts on the fly, we skip the stress (and sweat!) and head to the store. After all, the bounty of peak-season stone fruit overflowing at the market right now doesn’t need much to taste great. Here are three ways we transform store-bought ingredients into desserts that look and taste even better than homemade.

Go for Grilled

Grocery-store bakery sections can be pretty hit or miss. Luckily, thick slabs of poundcake are usually a safe bet, and even dried-out specimens can easily be revived on the grill. Lightly oil the grate to prevent sticking, then grill (turning once!) over medium heat until each slice is toasted, with a crisp exterior and fluffy interior. Throw some halved peaches or plums onto the grill until tender, then top each slice to allow the juices to soak into each moist bite. Bonus points if you manage to keep some ice cream chilled in the cooler for an a la mode finishing touch.

Level up Your Fruit Salad

Don’t have time to slice up a million melons? Ask a friend to grab a premade fruit salad from the store, then up the flavor by tossing in a few high-impact ingredients. Think: bright lime juice, smoky-sweet Tajin or Aleppo-style pepper flakes, and toasty coconut chips.

Macerate Away

There’s only thing better than a ripe peach: a macerated peach. The simple process of tossing fruit in sugar (and a pinch of salt!) draws out the fruits’ juices, which mingle with the sugar to create a magically delicious syrup that begs to be drizzled over ice cream and whipped cream. Berries, especially strawberries, are delicious with technique so pick up what looks good. Before you leave for the park, toss your favorite summer fruit (sliced if it’s large!) with sugar — aim for a ratio of 1 part sugar to 4 parts fruit. Stash store-bought ice cream or canned whip in the cooler (you can even find dairy-free versions made with coconut milk), then assemble in cups or bowls whenever your sugar craving hits.

Stories From the Park

Gathering in the park can evoke happiness, nostalgia and sweetness. Here are two stories about those summer feeling and the families we share them with.

The Pleasure of Entertaining for the Family We Choose — And Putting Your Feet in the Grass

The Great Outdoors — whether it's the woods or our neighborhood park — has always offered solace during challenging times. In this essay, writer Jesse Sparks shares the role it played in his life during quarantine.

Read here

The End of Summer Feels Like Family Reunion Day at the Lake

Writer Latria Graham reminisces about the family reunions of her childhood at the edge of a local lake. Music, fishing, and the richness of memory keep the spirit of those traditions alive long after the family has changed.

Read here

Next Up

Make a Floating Snack Bar and Never Leave the Pool This Summer

You can even attach a remote-control boat, so the the food and drinks come straight to your unicorn pool float.

The End of Summer Feels Like Family Reunion Day at the Lake

Writer Latria N. Graham reminisces about the family reunions of her childhood at the edge of a local lake. Music, fishing, and the richness of memory keep the spirit of those traditions alive long after the family has changed.

The Pleasure of Entertaining for the Family We Choose — And Putting Your Feet in the Grass

The Great Outdoors — whether it's the woods or our neighborhood park — has always offered solace during challenging times. In this essay, writer Jesse Sparks shares the role it played in his life during quarantine.

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Stocking a bar doesn't have to break the bank. Start with the basics, and build from there. Assess your bar supplies each season and before each planned party. In the warmer months, think beer, white wine and light spirits.
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