How to Plan the Perfect Picnic

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

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.

Picnic Pointers

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Chilling Tips

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.

Grilling Tips

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.

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.