Plan a Memorable Picnic

Reader Contribution by Carole Coates
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(Image courtesy of knit 1 weave 1 under the Creative Commons Attribution license)

Picnics! One of summer’s great pleasures, though a good planner can put a picnic together any time of year. You can build family memories with picnics, too. One of my mother’s favorite childhood memories is of family picnics, even though the forays were always on the homeplace.

When I plan a picnic for an all-day outing, it seems the only food ideas I have are pimiento cheese, egg salad, or peanut butter. But I’m ready for a little more culinary picnic excitement, so I’ve done some research and found lots of fun ideas for easy picnics, whether summer or winter, family or romantic twosomes, basic or gourmet.

You probably have plenty of recipes that would translate into great picnic food, but if you’re like me and your mind goes blank and the mention of picnics, these picnic ideas might get your creative juices flowing.

Make Your Picnic Special

If your picnic is nothing more than a roadside stop on the way to somewhere else, then you will likely pull off whenever your stomach tells you to. But if the picnic is your destination, look for someplace scenic, lush, and where shade is an option. If children are in the picture, try to find someplace with space to safely run off excess energy. Take items for pre- or post-picnic activities: a kite, croquet set, a good book, board game.

Pack for the Occasion

Insulated, soft-sided, easy-to-carry totes may not have the romantic look of wicker baskets, but they’ll make picnic life easier. One with straps or dividers to keep things secure is even better. Two smaller containers are better than one heavy one: food in one; non-food items in the other. If your picnic’s on the ground, pack a padded surface to sit on, preferably water-proof on one side. Consider taking something flat to set your food on. A tray or a small folding stool or table. How about a vintage hard-sided suitcase? It can do double duty by holding some of your supplies, too.

A cutting board and sharp kitchen knife will come in handy for bread, cheeses, and fruit. And be sure to pack a bag for any waste you may produce.

Instead of traditional paper and plastic disposables, purchase a set of lightweight, non-breakable plates, cups, and utensils just for picnics. Store them together to make preparation for every picnic a breeze.

Ditch the Soggy Sandwich

Who said picnics have to be all about sandwiches? Consider packing make-your-own ingredients for a hearty salad entrée. Tuck in a flavorful dressing or two. Tabouli is a colorful sandwich alternative. So is a cheesy corn salad. (Hint: Toss in cherry tomatoes and diced avocado. For simpler preparation, boil the corn. It’s still delicious.)

With just a little advance effort, you can whip up this veggie-packed quinoa salad

Prep ingredients for this Asian wrap with peanut sauce at home and prepare wraps on site.

For a truly simple sandwich alternative, pour drizzles of balsamic dressing and olive oil onto slices of ciabatta bread. Top with fresh basil leaves and slices of tomato and mozzarella. If you still prefer old-fashioned sandwich picnics, try using bread that can stand up to travel—say, biscuits or artisan rolls.

Make It Romantic

It’s a cinch. Any picnic will be enhanced by cloth napkins, a bottle of wine (remember the corkscrew) or sparkling water with a citrus garnish, and a jar of freshly-picked wildflowers.

Crackers and a jar of tapinade or chutney followed by a cheese selection (include a cheeseboard and knife) and a fresh loaf of crusty bread. How about hasselback tomato caprese? End the meal with fresh fruit. Make it fancy with chocolate-covered strawberries or sugared grapes. Simple yet elegant.

Picnic-Friendly Drinks and Desserts

Pack some lavender lemonade. (If you’re using the dried herb, use 2-3 Tbsp culinary lavender flowers.) Sorry, but if you want your lemonade to look lavender, you’ll need to add some food coloring. A drop each of blue and red should do it. Go easy—it doesn’t take much.

Maybe you’d prefer to dress up your iced tea with raspberries

Unless you’re watermelon-averse, this traditional picnic dessert never gets old. Homemade cookies make a simple, delicious picnic dessert, too.

For a different take, try dessert in a jar—layer fruit, small squares of your favorite cake, and some vanilla yogurt in a jelly-sized mason jar. Jars can also hold a healthy banana split parfait with layers of strawberries, bananas, nuts of your choice, and vanilla or honey yogurt. When it’s time to eat, drizzle a little homemade or purchased chocolate sauce on top for a decadent treat.

Winter Picnic?

Why not! Just dress for the occasion.

Pack something as simple as mac and cheese, lentil or cheesy-potato soup, or chili in insulated thermoses. Serve with cornbread. Add a couple more thermoses for a hot drink of your choice.

If you don’t want a full-fledged winter picnic, you can still fill thermos bottles with hot cocoa and add a tasty muffin or homemade granola bars. The kids are sure to love such a treat after a romp in the snow.

A Word About Safety

Mayonnaise gets a bad rap when it comes to potlucks and picnics. It’s low-acid foods that can cause a problem, and mayo, especially store-bought, is acidic. North Carolina State University has some tips on ensuring that homemade mayonnaise and other foods pass the picnic safety test. Keeping picnic food properly chilled is also key to food safety.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

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