Tips for a Perfect Picnic

July 3, 2019 Updated: July 4, 2019

To inspire your own al fresco outings, three picnic experts share their best tips, recipes, and picture-perfect picnics.

Ashley English
Author, “A Year of Picnics”
Asheville, North Carolina

Ashley English
Ashley English. (Nicole McConville)

Picnic Tips

I always say to set your intention for a picnic, and then let go of how it manifests. Which is to say, appreciate the experience for what it is. Don’t allow yourself to get thrown by any upsets or snafus that might occur—they’ll make the day more memorable in the long run, anyway.

For me, a huge part of the appeal of picnicking is actually the unexpectedness it presents. Which is to say, you can’t truly control everything that happens when you picnic. It might rain. There may be ants. Someone else might already be enjoying their own picnic in the spot you’d set your sights on. Your plate of food might be upended by a boisterously playing child. So much of our lives these days are planned and mediated that the unpredictable nature of picnics is something I find truly refreshing. 

The Spread

The foods I pack for a picnic are always informed by two variables: the time of year and the picnic setting itself. I always lean toward whatever is both seasonally available and what best suits the temperature and climate of the day. So in summer, I love to pack things such as freshly made gazpacho (sometimes packed into mason jars for ease of transport), while in winter, I’ll bring along an insulated thermos of a robust soup or stew.

RECIPE: Gazpacho

young girl ladles Gazpacho into bowl
Gazpacho. (Jen Altman)

My Perfect Picnic

My perfect picnic would be with my husband and our two young sons in mid-October, up atop Black Balsam, a mountain bald on the Blue Ridge Mountains. The air would be cool, the foliage would be a riot of color, the views would be panoramic, and the meal would be pork chop sandwiches with slaw, pumpkin whoopie pies, and a thermos of something warm and invigorating.  

Lauren Angelucci McDuffie
Author, “Smoke, Roots, Mountain, Harvest”
Indianapolis

Lauren Angelucci McDuffie
Lauren Angelucci McDuffie. (Amy Gray/Silver Pebble Photography)

Picnic Tips

Depending on where the picnic is, chances are you might have to do a little walking to get to your ideal spot. This is often true for me, so to prevent anyone from having to take too many trips to the car to get all of the picnic items, I like to bring a wagon in which we can pile and then pull along all of the goodies. Plus, the kids can play with it once it’s been emptied, so it does double duty there.

The Spread

If I were planning for a larger picnic, say, with friends, I would include a vinaigrette-based potato salad, a fun flavored water (I’m thinking cherry-watermelon agua fresca), and my favorite fried chicken and biscuits. 

RECIPE: Buttermilk and Herb-Fried Chicken With Hot Honey

buttermilk fried chicken with herbs and hot honey sauce
(Lauren Angelucci Mcduffie)

My Perfect Picnic

I’m going to go with an early evening in early spring picnic, when being outside is still kind of new and exciting and very much appreciated by all. Ideally, I’d be near water with my family—my husband and two kids—and we’d probably be noshing on simple sandwiches, potato chips, fresh fruit, and cookies. Sandwiches are the great equalizer in my house—everyone loves them—and you can’t beat the portability and convenience of all of the above. 

Emma Frisch
Author, “Feast by Firelight,” and culinary director, Firelight Camps
Ithaca, New York

Emma Frisch
Emma Frisch. (Christina Holmes)

Picnic Tips

Pack a canvas bag for dirty dishes and cutlery. You can then easily transfer these to the sink or dishwasher at home, and throw the bag in with the next load of wash. 

Bring a picnic blanket that has a waterproof underside, or set a cloth picnic blanket over a tarp. This will help keep everyone comfortable and dry, and preserve the blanket for longer as well. 

Don’t forget a pocket knife. It’s really the only knife you’ll need for a picnic and you can fold it up and tuck it away safely from children when it’s not in use. 

The Spread

My favorite foods to pack are a hearty dip, such as hummus or baba ganoush, with sliced vegetables. With this combination, I know that everyone—especially my children—will have a protein-rich snack to keep them full, along with nutritious vegetables. After that, are sliced cheese, charcuterie (like salami and turkey), and sliced fruit. Again, the cheese and meats provide a filling bite, and the fruit helps balance it and serve as a pairing vehicle. 

With friends, it’s easy enough to have everyone bring one dish that, together, contributes to a feast. Without much fuss or cooking, everyone can relax into the moment, sharing food and conversation. Don’t forget a few bottles of wine!

RECIPE: Smoked Salmon Spread

Smoked Salmon Spread
Smoked salmon spread. (Christina Holmes)

My Perfect Picnic

My perfect picnic is on the east shore of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, New York. There’s a special spot, a five-minute drive from our house, where the locals go to swim and barbecue.

In July and August, when the summer heat finally sets in, [my husband] Bobby and I often make a spur-of-the-moment decision just before dinner time to cobble together a picnic dinner, get the girls in the car, and head to the lake. On the way, we’ll call a few of our close friends to let them know we’re heading out. It’s such an easy access point that most of our friends can also shift into gear and join us. It’s hard to say no to Cayuga’s waters.

Within the happy hour, we have about four sets of parents and twice as many kids on top of the little hill that slopes down to big boulders, where the gentle waves lap and cool off the hot shale rock. We create a mosaic of picnic blankets, children’s books, and dishes. Everyone has their fill when they’re ready. There’s no agenda. Just swimming, copious snacking, and staying long enough to watch the sunset and the fireflies come out. We head home wrapped in towels, with the kids sleeping in the car. 

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