Nothing says summer like picnics, whether it’s a simple tabletop spread in the neighborhood park, a gourmet basket in a meadow, or a blanket by the seaside at sunset. Sumptuous or simple? It really doesn’t matter—outdoor meals of all kinds are wonderful because they pair two of some of the best things in life: food and nature. And now that we’re starting to be able to crawl out of our homes and make the first strides into emerging back into the world, being able to safely see our friends and family outside sounds really good right about now.
We’ve consulted the pros to gather together absolutely everything you need to know in order to plan, source, and host a picnic—and incorporate outdoor dining into your summer living style. Scan this all-about picnics guide to get started. Generally speaking, “simple and fuss-free, but not boring” is the mantra, says SAVEUR magazine. So, what are you waiting for? Pack your basket and toast the season al fresco!
A Longtime Tradition
If you think picnicking is a modern-day thing, just consult the history books. As it turns out, we’ve been enjoying picnics in one form or another for centuries, historians say. The leisure class in Medieval times, for example, staged elegant post-hunt fresh-air feasts featuring wild game, as portrayed in the ballads of Robin Hood and depicted on elaborate woven tapestries.
The written word “picnic” first surfaced in the 1600s. It comes from the French “pique-nique,” a term for wealthy gourmands bringing along bottles of wine to restaurants and bistros when dining out. The “pique-nique” evolved to high-brow al fresco meals, then became big in Victorian England for folks from all walks of life.
How to Host Your Best Picnic
Start by thinking about what type of picnic you want to have. When planning your outside lunch or dinner outing, ask yourself what type of meal you have in mind: simple or fancy? Family-friendly or for the adult set? Will it be a casual, crowd-pleasing lunch for relatives spanning the generations from toddlers to grandparents, or a sophisticated dinner affair for foodie friends? Are you hosting it all or coordinating a potluck? After you’ve identified your guest group and style, then you can consider the format.
Feast in the Fields
Some popular concepts include the long-table feast in the fields. This can be a locavore harvest dinner in your backyard, at a pastoral park, or at an area farm or winery where you serve just-harvested, rustic seasonal fare at a feasting table for 12 or 24: dishes such as tomato, basil, and buffalo mozzarella salad, herbed Little Potatoes and roasted pork tenderloin. Illuminate the area with twinkle lights or solar lanterns and dress the table with organic botanicals: artfully placed fresh fruit such as apples and pears, garlands of herbs or hops, tin cans filled with wildflower bouquets, ribbon-tied bundles of fragrant lavender…
Dine on the Shore
Another favorite is the beach picnic. Pick a theme—seafood, BBQ, Caribbean, artisan—and lay out a colorful blanket with cushions for comfy seating (or beach chairs) and festive shade umbrellas. Be sure to have a cooler on hand to keep food cool til serving and a folding table where you can set out the buffet well above the sand. Use summer-motif plastic trays, plates, and cups (with sealing lids and straws) with matching cloth napkins. Iced tea is refreshing, but doesn’t lure ants and wasps as much as lemonade does. Or serve the ruby-hued upscale version: iced ginger hibiscus tea.
Think cool and refreshing with your menu selections, plus choose foods that are easy to eat with your fingers, not messy or goopy, and don’t require silverware. If you’ll be staying late and gathering around the bonfire, be sure to bring newspaper, kindling, firewood, and matches. Go fancy with lobster salad on French bread or down-home style with barbecued chicken drumsticks, mini corn on the cob wheels, carrots, and celery sticks. Also good is an assortment of sandwiches cut into triangle halves, plus fruit and chips or chili-lime popcorn.
Just for two
A classic is a romantic picnic in a meadow a la Tuscany’s “A Room with a View.” Pull out all the stops for this one: a traditional picnic blanket, a wicker basket, real silverware, a mini wooden cutting board, cloth napkins, and wine glasses. Fill your basket with gourmet delicacies from a farm stand or artisanal grocer. Staples might include a crusty baguette, Brie and goat cheese, olives, grapes, heirloom apples, patté, and smoked salmon, plus Belgian or Swiss chocolate for dessert. Bring a bottle of sparkling water and a nice Chianti, perhaps a guitar, if you’re so inclined.
Laidback at home
A casual backyard picnic is a must for everyone. For grown-ups, it brings you back to the warm-‘n-fuzzy feeling of endless summer: long, balmy evenings outside til after dark with the aroma of grilling burgers and freshly mown grass. For kids, it’s a chance to run around, play in the sprinklers, and grab tasty bites off the picnic table when mom’s not watching. And for the host, it’s also a relaxing way to entertain—whether it’s friends, neighbors, family, or the company picnic. There’s no mess, few dishes, and no worries about spills or breaks. Dining in the backyard is also just very chill, thanks to the outdoor setting, laidback vibe, and generally more casual menu to match. Either serve the usual picnic faves or cook something up on the barbecue.
Backyard dinners are perfect buffet-style, and guests can either eat at the patio picnic table, while milling around and socializing, or around the garden on lawn chairs. You can leave the décor to simply patio lights plus a floral tablecloth or go all Martha Stewart with a special theme. If entertaining stresses you out, a backyard picnic is your chance to host without the pressure. You can make absolutely everything in advance, then set it out and relax and enjoy. Or, if the chicken is taking too long on the grill, just bring out a set of badminton rackets and no one will ever notice!
The best spots
Your theme and guests will determine the best location. For example, if you’re hosting a pre-football game tailgate or pre-opera affair in the parking lot, toasting dad with a backyard BBQ, or celebrating Grandpa’s 70th with a beach lobster boil. Parks are wonderful, especially if you have little ones because they can run off their energy at the playground while the grown-ups relax on the lawn or play croquet. Choose a grass-and-swing set park for a family picnic and a meadows-and-woods nature park for a date-day twosome or casual gathering with friends.
Many formal gardens, such as Rome’s Villa Borghese, San Francisco’s Gold Gate and New York City’s Central Park, Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, or the Montreal Botanical Garden, allow picnicking—truly an idyllic way to take in the beauty over slow food among fresh air, flowers, and foliage.
If you’re hosting a simple picnic, just make a quick list of the menu, guests, ingredients and gear, and go. If you’re putting on something more elaborate, take your time planning out each of these. Then make a to-do hit list for the week before, day before and day of. If big events make you feel frazzled, make it a potluck picnic, including outsourcing things like cutlery and plates, or whatever you don’t have in your stash of equipment and supplies.
For bigger picnics, be sure to make a reservation if needed for the venue and have a rainy day alternate location lined up. For any picnic, consider things like bugs (do you need bug spray or a wasp catcher?), keeping food cool, wind (do you need clip-on weights to keep the tablecloth from blowing off?), transporting the food and equipment to and from, seating and clean-up/trash.
If you’re having, say, 10 for dinner on the beach, you can put together a castaway-style portable table that sits just above the sand made of two logs with boards crossing over top, lined with cushions on two sides for comfy seating. Be creative, tap your imagination, and have fun with the planning! Consult Pinterest, Instagram, and glossy magazines like Real Simple and Southern Living to find the latest great ideas.
What you don’t want is to arrive with all the great goodies minus the blanket or corkscrew. Consult this picnic essentials list (below) to make sure you’ve got it all in the basket. Here’s a checklist that covers the basics:
• Picnic blanket
• Picnic basket or backpack with the food
• Thermos or bottled water (in plastic)
• Lemonade, iced tea, sparkling water, and/or wine or beer
• Corkscrew if needed
• Silverware (bamboo flatware is ideal)
• A sharp knife, tucked into a blade protector
• Plastic or metal cups
• Napkins, paper or bamboo plates
• A zipped cooler bag for your edibles
• A dishtowel and rag for spills (wrap any glass containers in these, too, for transport)
• A solar votive or two for ambiance
• A lantern and flashlight if you’ll be staying past sunset
• A bag for trash/recyclables
• Wasp guard, bug repellent, fly swatter
• Binoculars, a local bird-watching guide
• A kite, Frisbee or ball
Le Menu: perfect picnic pairings
When picnicking went from high-class to ubiquitous in Victorian England, menus were hearty, to put it mildly. A typical menu for 40 might’ve included “cold roast beef, four meat pies, four roast chickens, two roast ducks, four dozen cheesecakes and one large cold plum pudding… three dozen quart bottles of beer… as well as claret, sherry, and brandy,” recounts History.com. Thankfully, that has changed. Nowadays, it’s about fresh and straightforward.
For your menu, weigh the location with the time of day, guests, and theme, then put together a list of dishes to match. But, as SAVEUR counsels, always keep it simple. You’ll want protein, starch, and vegetable or fruit, plus dessert and beverages. Consider the format, too. Fun and modern, not to mention healthy, are salads in portable jars and colorful skewers or kebabs. Proven crowd pleasers are cold chicken, whether BBQ’d or deep-fried, watermelon, wrap pinwheels, all-in-one salad dishes, and for dessert, chocolate-chip cookies, and brownies.
Potato salad—from traditional to fusion
Little Potatoes are a must on any picnic menu, especially the classic staple, potato salad. Creamers blend well with virtually everything, are easy to prepare, and can be made well in advance to save time. Make any of these favorite potato salad recipes—from Thai and vegan to Lebanese, Greek yogurt, and the traditional.
If you make your picnic spontaneous, it’s more of an adventure. It also keeps the focus on the folks, versus the food, which is good, plus adds zero stress and planning time. In 15 minutes, you should be able to gather together the food and drinks, basket (cooler or bag), blanket/tablecloth, plus recyclable plates, cups, and (if needed) silverware. (Pro tip: Have an insulated picnic to-go bag at the ready. Put it in a convenient location so you can just grab it if you decide it’s picnic time.)
Keep the menu simple to the max; e.g., sandwiches, last night’s leftovers, take-out pizza or barbecue wings, or just a bunch of healthy snacks from the fridge and cupboard. Get everyone who’s going to help put it all together. Then, pick a nice spot—your patio, a clearing in the woods, a riverside picnic table—add a Frisbee and head out!
A picnic to remember
A distinctive theme will conjure a special, memorable ambiance for your picnic because you can create a whole party vibe and décor motif around it.
- Hosting beer fans? Put on a Bavarian Oktoberfest picnic with polka music, blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, and Bratwurst sizzling on the grill, plus sauerkraut and pretzels with mustard.
- You can also do a baseball, volleyball, or Bocce picnic.
- Put on a Southern, Western, or Hawaiian flavor event. Try a carnival, Mardis Gras, or circus theme.
- Host a Fourth of July or Canada Day picnic, or block party-type picnic in the cul-de-sac.
That said, even just a red-and-white check tablecloth on a picnic table under a leafy tree, with some potato salad and cold chicken, is pure summer bliss. Happy picnicking!