Everything You Need to Know to Pack the Perfect Family Picnic

Summer means picnic season, and we've got the best tips—and recipes—to make your next outdoor celebration a success

Everything You Need to Know to Pack the Perfect Family Picnic
Warmer weather calls for packing a feast and gathering friends and family to enjoy it in the great outdoors. (yonikamoto/Shutterstock)

Now that summer’s here in all her warmth and sunshine, it’s time to head outdoors.

Growing up, my family hosted picnics throughout the summer. My mother would pack a cooler with deviled eggs, ice-cold lemonade, and sandwiches, and we’d spend our afternoons at the beach.

It’s a tradition I’ve kept with my own family, and you can guarantee that you’ll find us eating outside all through the summer—barbecues with friends for the Fourth of July, lakeside picnics on hot August afternoons, and plenty of suppers on the lawn.

Undoubtedly, you’ll find yourself invited to (or, perhaps, hosting) a few outdoor gatherings this season. While it’s simple enough to head to the grocery store to pick up a bag of chips and a few prepared salads from the deli case, you’ll find there’s greater pleasure to be had from a homemade picnic.

Fortunately, with careful planning, it’s easier to pull off than you think.

Plan (and Prep) Ahead

Planning ahead and preparing as much as you can in advance means your picnic will go off without a hitch. While there are plenty of fancy apps that can help you plan meals on your smartphone, I find that a pad and pencil work the best.

When planning your picnic, write down the dishes you intend to serve, any ingredients you still need to pick up from the store, and any helpful tools or utensils you’ll need. Remember to add plenty of napkins, flatware, plates, a blanket or tablecloth, and a basket or cooler to your list, too. You’ll also need ice to keep things cold (and for drinks), and a few extra bags for trash.

Once you have your list together, it’s easy to work through the items one-by-one. Prepare your dishes in advance a day or two before you leave for your outing. It’ll lighten your load, so that all you have to do is pack your basket and head out the door. Containers with tight-fitting lids and mason jars will come in handy.

 When you’re packing coolers and carting everything from your kitchen to your local lake or park, simplicity is the key. (CL Shebley/Shutterstock)
When you’re packing coolers and carting everything from your kitchen to your local lake or park, simplicity is the key. (CL Shebley/Shutterstock)

Keep It Simple

When you’re packing coolers and carting everything from your kitchen to your local lake or park, simplicity is the key. Keep your menu light and simple, and minimize the extras. One or two vegetable dishes, a main course, and a dessert are usually sufficient for most outings. Sometimes the simplest recipes work the best: Carrot and celery sticks with homemade hummus, a chopped vegetable salad, and sliced oranges all do the trick. It’s not the time for fussy recipes or fancy, complicated cakes.

Bring Plenty of Veggies (but Skip the Lettuce)

Choose recipes that have some staying power—that is, dishes that keep for a while without losing their quality. Sliced fresh vegetables work well. Simple dips, such as guacamole or pesto, can be a nice addition.
Salads are a good choice as they have a cool, fresh quality about them that makes them a perfect match for hot summer afternoons. Opt for chopped vegetable salads rather than salads made with lettuce and greens, which are difficult to prep in advance and will wilt in the heat. Potato salad, tomato salad, and smashed cucumber salad all have a little more staying power. They’re easy to make, and don’t succumb to hot weather as easily as leafy greens.

Shoot for Finger Foods

To minimize clunky forks and knives, opt for finger foods. They’re fun to eat, and perfect for the casual setting of a summer picnic. Sliced vegetables and dip are a delicious option, as are fresh fruit such as watermelon slices, berries, or peaches.
While fruits and vegetables make perfect summer finger foods, oven-fried chicken drumsticks are our family favorite. It’s a cinch to pack them into your picnic basket, and they’re easy to pick up and eat. Other main dish options include savory hand pies such as empanadas or pasties, sandwiches, or precooked kebabs.

Temperature Matters

When picnicking, a cooler packed with ice can only take you so far. Summer heat can quickly reduce all that ice to a puddle, so opt for dishes that are equally good when served at room temperature or cold. Chopped vegetables, precooked or cured meats, and fresh fruit are good options. Acidic foods such as pickles or vegetables dressed with vinaigrette make a good choice, too, as the acid helps to preserve foods, keeping harmful bacteria at bay.

Keep It Clean

Barbecue ribs dripping with sauce sound delicious. But, do you really want to be wiping sauce off the face of a squirming toddler? Instead, look for foods that eat clean, limiting sauces and gloopy condiments such as mayonnaise or cream. Also, make sure to pack extra napkins, wipes, and trash bags so it’s easy to clean up.
Jennifer McGruther, NTP, is a nutritional therapy practitioner, herbalist, and the author of three cookbooks, including “Vibrant Botanicals.” She’s also the creator of NourishedKitchen.com, a website that celebrates traditional foodways, herbal remedies, and fermentation. She teaches workshops on natural foods and herbalism, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.