The lazy days of summer call for cuisine that's carefree, too. So it's no surprise that picnics are a popular choice when the weather warms.
Mobile meals require little planning and can be as simple or as elegant as you'd like. For outdoor dining in a dash, choose cold deli chicken, crusty bread, fresh fruit and a wedge of cheese.
If you have a few minutes to spare, assemble a lunch of savory turkey subs, chilled salad skewers and sweet home-baked treats. Or, if you prefer flame-broiled fare, tote along the items you'll need to fix your favorites on the grill.
Whether your outing is for two or 20, you're sure to have a good time if you keep these picnic pointers in mind.
- Consider packing two containers—a picnic basket for tableware and nonperishable items and a cooler for cold food and beverages.
- To make it easy to get at the items you need when you arrive at your picnic site, pack your basket in reverse order. Place nonperishable food on the bottom, then serving items and tableware, and finally the tablecloth on top.
- If you're feeding a lot of people, bring two coolers. Since frequent opening of a cooler allows the cool air to escape, use one for frequently used items such as beverages. Use the second cooler for perishable foods like meats and salads.
- Closely estimate how much food your group will eat to avoid leftovers. Unless they can be kept very cold or very hot, leftovers of perishable items should be thrown away.
- Bring along plastic bags to cart home dirty dishes and silverware, and for garbage in case there are no trash barrels at the picnic site.
Potluck Recipes >
Cold sandwiches, chilled salads and icy beverages really hit the spot on warm days. To ensure these items stay cool—and safe to eat—remember these rules:
- Cold foods should be kept at 40°F or colder.
- When packing a cooler, it should be about 25% ice and 75% food. Place ice on the bottom and along the sides of the cooler. Then place the heaviest and most perishable foods on top of the ice. Fill in with lighter items.
- Transfer chilled foods directly from the refrigerator to the cooler. Don't use the cooler to chill warm or room temperature items.
- A full cooler will stay colder longer than one that is partially empty, so choose an appropriate sized cooler. If food doesn't completely fill your cooler, add more ice.
- Large pieces of ice melt more slowly than ice cubes. If you plan to be gone awhile, use chunks of ice instead of ice cubes. Simply fill clean empty milk cartons with water and freeze.
- To protect your cooler from the sun's rays, place it in the shade as soon as you arrive at your picnic spot.
- When setting out chilled salads or other cold foods, consider placing the serving containers in a larger pan filled with ice to keep them cold.
Cold Sandwich Recipes >
Cold Beverages >
While subs and other sandwiches are common alfresco fare, grilled foods are popular, too. If you plan to cook meats such as chicken, steak, hamburgers or hot dogs at your picnic site, heed these helpful hints:
- Wrap raw meat, poultry or fish separately from cooked foods in airtight plastic containers or resealable plastic bags.
- Freeze meats before packing so they remain cold longer. This is especially important if you must travel a long distance to the picnic location or if the foods won't be grilled immediately upon arrival.
- Do not partially cook foods at home to speed up cooking at the picnic site; bacteria grows faster in partially cooked foods.
- Hot foods should be kept at 140°F or hotter and should be eaten within 2 hours of being cooked.
Grilling Recipes >
Hot Dog & Burger Toppings >
More Picnic Tips
- I have found a way to keep food and beverages extra hot in an insulated thermos. First, fill the thermos with boiling water. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Pour the water out and fill with soup, a sauce or a hot beverage.
—Lorraine Caland, Thunder Bay, Ontario
- I make my picnics memorable by packing a pretty serving plate, a vase for flowers or fabric napkins. Simple additions like these add a special touch. To help pies and tarts travel well to your next picnic or potluck, carefully place an aluminum pie plate upside down over the dessert and secure with a rubber band.
—Paula Marchesi, Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania
- Before heading out for a weekend picnic, I place hot dogs in a thermos and cover them with boiling water. When it's time to eat, the hot dogs are piping hot. Don't forget the buns!
—Sandra Miller, Lexington, Kentucky
- Insulated carrying cases are a great way to transport hot and cold foods. They keep food at the right temperature, especially when you add a few hot or cold packs around the dish. The cases are available at department stores in the kitchenware aisle.
—Rachel Case, Brookhaven, Mississippi
- Transporting marinated or creamy salads is a snap when you pack them in large resealable plastic bags. Just pour the salad into a bowl once you reach your destination. The bags don't take up much space in the cooler, and they won't spill!
—Meghan Mueseler, Nebraska City, Nebraska
Equipped with these tips and a packed picnic basket, you're ready to go. All that's left is choosing a place to spread out your portable feast. Consider the banks of a nearby lake or stream, a local park or a shady spot in your own backyard. Then sit back, relax and enjoy a picture-perfect picnic.