Dining alfresco sounds so much more impressive than “picnic,” but whatever you call it, eating under the open sky can be a delightful way to entertain friends and family.
But before you grab the basket, there are a few interim steps to take in order to host the perfect picnic.
Start by deciding why you want to host a picnic and who would attend. Is it for immediate family only, or will several families on the block take part? Is it a birthday party or other celebration? Will it be a casual event or a more formal affair?
Knowing who’ll be invited and the reason for the picnic allows you to plan the menu. If there’ll be parents and children, the menu needs to include food the kids are likely to eat, such as macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. Set up a table for the kids that’s far enough away from the adults to allow pleasant conversation, yet close enough to keep an eye on them and get over there quickly if little Johnny starts choking on a not-quite-fully-chewed hot dog.
On a related note, bring a well-equipped first-aid kit, and, keep in mind that mayonnaise can be used to soothe burns from accidentally getting too close to the grill.
Once you have the guest list, choose a venue. Many parks have picnic tables and pavilions available on a first-come, first-served basis, but on holidays, you may have to reserve the tables and/or pavilion in advance. Don’t assume you’ll just show up and find a place. Some may allow you to use an open-sided party tent and your own table in an open area, but confirm all this before you arrive, to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
If the guest list is limited to adults, you can decide on what to serve based on who’ll be in attendance. For example, if the guest list consists of your family and a few cousins, you can most likely plan a casual meal of burgers and hot dogs, plus chicken for those who don’t eat red meat.
This brings us to another filter to apply to your plan: Find out if anyone on the guest list has food allergies or diet preferences. Don’t assume everyone can eat what you prepare, or you may find guests loading their plates with nothing but pickles and potato salad as they glare at you.
If the guest list includes co-workers, and especially if your supervisors are on it, you need to step it up a bit. This is the culinary version of “dress to impress,” so you’ll want to serve some unique or special items such as appetizers of portobello mushrooms with cheese, a selection of drinks that includes an array of sodas, wines, and spritzers, as well as several brands of beer. Use a nicer grade of disposable dishes, cutlery, napkins, and cups than you’d use for “just family.”
Regardless of your choice of appetizers and sides, prepare them in the days ahead of the event, in trays that will be easy to transport to the picnic site, and put them in the refrigerator. If you run out of room in the refrigerator, which is fairly sure to happen, ask neighbors (who are invited to the event) if they’ll keep them in their refrigerator. Ice down the drinks the morning of the event; a tip to make it easier is to add ice to the coolers when they are already loaded into the minivan or SUV, before taking all the food and supplies to the picnic site. Don’t skimp on ice; it rarely lasts as long as expected and is a must to keep drinks chilled and food fresh. Serving warm soda or beer is a big no.
Another option is to break from the traditional picnic food choices of deviled eggs, baked beans, coleslaw, burgers, and hot dogs, and instead go with a theme such as pizza, with unexpected sides such as a refreshingly cool black-eyed pea salad, a zesty, freshly made guacamole, or pressed broccoli rabe and mozzarella sandwiches that are as much fun to look at as they are good to eat.
For desserts that will make you a legend, consider Hello Dollies—chocolate and butterscotch chip cakes made with Ritz crackers—for a unique treat, or sheet-pan brownies that look like a thin-crust pizza but are much tastier.
If you go the pizza route, there are a number of propane grills you can use that have optional oven attachments. To add excitement, let your guests choose the toppings. Don’t make a face if they ask for Hawaiian pizza—it’s an acquired taste with plenty of loyal fans.
Last but not least, pack bug spray and sunblock; coming home with a sunburn isn’t the way you want your guests to remember an otherwise great affair.