By Patrick Murphy
There are a few things that signify summer: the sound of an ice cream truck driving down the street, catching lightning bugs on a warm night and outdoor picnics with your favorite fare. Between meal prep and setting up shop, packing the perfect picnic basket may seem like a chore, but it can be a walk in the park…and you can choose your own adventure on how much of a “walk” to make it. Whether you’re planning an outdoor outing for your whole family or just a party of two, you’re sure to have a great time. These pointers will make it even better, even if you’re just picnicking in your own backyard (and, let it be known, almost any season is fine for a picnic. Who am I to judge?):
Reverse Your Thinking: Once you’ve identified your picnic destination, it can take a while to prep before you can chow down. Streamline setup by packing your basket (or cooler) in reverse order. Rather than placing food items on top, move them to the bottom of your basket, followed by serving items and a tablecloth to top it off. This will make it easy to grab what you need in the order in which you need it when you arrive at your destination.
Plan Ahead: Eating al fresco carries its own little hazards. Sunscreen, hand sanitizer, bug spray, an umbrella, and even a small first aid kit (bandaids, pain reliever, stomach medications) can be really helpful when planning a day (let alone a meal) in the great outdoors. And maybe refresh your memory of what poison ivy looks like (it may not ruin a picnic but it certainly can ruin the week after). Similarly, extra plastic bags may prove useful in discarding garbage or separating leftovers from dirty containers. And a plastic shower curtain liner or vinyl tablecloth to place under your picnic blanket will go a long way in keeping things dry and comfortable. And never picnic without wet naps or baby wipes. No, they’re not glamorous. Pack them anyway.
Keep Your Cool: Needless to say, no one wants food poisoning from Auntie Mabel’s famous egg-salad sandwiches or Grandma Gussie’s coconut cream cake. Use a cooler, not a basket, for anything more than an apple and a bag of potato chips. Don’t forget: the cooler will fare better if it is more full than not (and it’s A-OK if you use a cooler in place of a basket for everything — packed in reverse order, of course). Similarly, rather than small bags of ice, consider using some of your food as icing agents: traveling more than a couple hours? Freeze the meat you’ll be grilling (if that applies and only if it’s thin/small enough to thaw in time), freeze iced tea and lemonade into handy ice cubes (you can cute it up by throwing those in the ever-appealing Mason jars) that will thaw when you need them. Similarly, if you’re bringing alcoholic beverages, chill them in the freezer for about half an hour before you pack them (obviously, be careful with the time if the drinks are packaged in glass): the alcohol will hold the cold for a long time without freezing. Sure, use actual ice, too. Filling large two-liter plastic bottles half-full and freezing will make sturdy hunks of glacier for your cooler and first aid ice packs can work, too. And, believe it or not, you can make your own reusable gel ice pack by filling a zip-top bag with dish detergent and sticking that in the freezer for several hours. If you are at all worried about things, stick your fridge thermometer into the cooler near the food (deviled eggs, potato salad, shrimp salad, meat…here’s looking at you).
Forget the Forks, if you can: Serve things (and pack them) kebab style on skewers or in mini-tart/quiche/or pie format. If you’re focusing on sandwiches, wraps are tidier, depending on the fillings (hello, cheese). And never underestimate the value of a classic ploughman’s lunch: a bottle of wine (or beer), a loaf or two of crusty bread, some hunks of cheese, and grapes. You can add a bottle of brown mustard, if you’re fancy, but the beauty of this? No meat juices, no eggs, no salmonella, not even the cooler, if you don’t want (although why would you waste the opportunity to show off the iced tea ice cubes and the dishwasher gel ice pack?). The point is: keep it simple or, at least, easy to handle and bite-sized. Unless you’re grilling…
If you’re grilling: package the meat in plastic and keep it separate from everything else until it’s cooked. Seriously. Consider packing all your leftover fast-food condiment packets instead of the grimy bottles or fill a muffin tin with the sauces, relishes, and toppings and wrap with plastic wrap. It will sit flat on even grassy surfaces and is a bit easier than carting around every half-used bottle from your fridge.
Pro Tip: Even if you’re not grilling, package your dry/wet/bread/sauce/sweet/salty items in their own leak-proof compartments. Do not permit anyone to eat something flavored with mayonnaise or hot dog juice unless they choose it for their very own selves.
Don’t Forget the Ambiance: Going for the day into the evening? Take candles to plunk in your empty wine bottles or to scatter around (out of the way of any children, clearly). Pack that croquet set you’ve never used or a Frisbee. This is, frankly, a great opportunity for sparklers. Want to really make it fancy (for example, this is a date, you are proposing, or you are showing off)? Bring unexpected furnishings and a pup tent: A little tent, a little candle, a little throw rug, a couple pillows? People might laugh at you; they will also wish, most sincerely, that they were you.
Just don’t forget the baby wipes. And the (appropriately chilled) food. No one likes picnics without any food. That’s a fact.
Image credit: Internet search results; all images found on multiple pages.