How to Plan the Perfect Picnic

Updated: Nov. 24, 2023

Whether your outing is for two or 20, you're sure to have a good time if you keep these picnic pointers in mind.

The sun is shining, flowers are blooming—and that gingham blanket that’s been sitting in the back of the closet all winter is ready to make its much-anticipated return. That means, it’s time for a picnic! Outdoor meals require little planning and can be as simple or as elegant as you’d like. Start with these picnic-ready recipes that are easy to pack in a basket.

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And for dessert, end with a summer lovin’ popsicle! You can either use molds to make one of our most refreshing popsicle recipes or fill up one of these Zipsicle pouches ($10 for a 100-pack) with the flavor of your choice. Use a sharpie to write the flavor or a fun, summery message on them.

Tips for Transporting Food

How to pack food to go, small pan with lid tied onTaste of Home

Have a dish that needs to be kept warm? Instead of transporting food into a different container, keep it in the cooking vessel for a laid-back feel. If the cooking dish has a lid and handles—like this beautiful oven-safe skillet from Calphalon—take a flour sack towel or clean dish rag and tie it around to secure. Try it out with this yummy bacon and asparagus frittata.

How to travel with hard-boiled eggsTaste of Home

Famous for your deviled eggs? You don’t need a special container to serve them. Place each egg in a cupcake liner for easy travel. Get all of our favorite recipes for deviled eggs here.

Taste of Home

You can also keep a picnic kit at the ready. Stash paper plates, picnic-ready flatware, sunblock and a few outdoor games in a container. When not in use, slip it in your cooler for next time!

Here are a few more ideas:

  • Consider packing two containers—a picnic basket for tableware and nonperishable items and a cooler for cold food and beverages.
  • Pack your basket in reverse order to make it easy to get at the items you need when you arrive at your picnic site. Place nonperishable food on the bottom, then serving items and tableware, and finally the tablecloth on top.
  • No basket? No worries! Load your goodies into a sturdy cardboard box, plastic bin or even a backpack.
  • 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. (These picnic salad ideas are some of our absolute favorites! Try these tasty picnic side dishes, too.)
  • 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.
  • Save extra condiment packets from fast-food restaurants to bring along on your picnic—the packs are ideal for easy outdoor meals.
  • 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.

Don’t forget any of these items to pack for every picnic.

How to Keep Your Food Cool

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.
  • Avoid packing mayonnaise and ice cream-based dishes that can turn bad or melt in the sun.
  • Here are a few more tips for how to keep your food cool outdoors.

After going to all this trouble of keeping your food fresh and safe to eat, the last thing you’d want is for ants to enjoy the meal instead of your family. Here’s a foolproof way to stop them in their tracks: Place a plastic container on the bottom of each picnic table leg. Fill with water. The ants won’t be able to crawl past!

Grilling Tips

While subs and other sandwiches are common alfresco fare, grilled foods are popular, too. Get inspiration from our top grilling recipes. 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.
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Can’t swing a recipe? Outdoor eats don’t always have to be from scratch. For 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. Want to elevate store-bought fare? Learn the cheese board styling secrets that will impress your friends.

More Fun Picnic Ideas

Equipped with the above 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 with these fun ideas:

  • Make getting to the picnic a scavenger hunt. Leave clues or a “treasure” map for your family to find their way to the picnic destination.
  • Bring along a board game, bocce ball, a softball and catcher’s mitt or a Frisbee for some outdoor fun. If kids will be joining you, try to pick a park with a playground nearby.
  • Plan a hike and bring the picnic with you. Stop when you get hungry or find a scenic spot to eat.
  • Set the mood with a sunset picnic. If it’s allowed, bring a few votive candles and a small bouquet of flowers to add to the ambience.
  • Consider packing a picnic for others, whether it’s for your kids in the backyard, your neighbors next door or even a coworker in need of some lunchtime fun.

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