Here's the Best Way to Pack a Picnic Basket (or Cooler) for Your Next Outdoor Meal
Picnic pros share their expertise on what to bring along and the most efficient way to pack it all up.
We love the laid-back environment of a picnic: What could be better than sitting on a soft, grassy patch with friends and some glasses of rosé. But before you can get to that point, you need to pack up all of your picnic essentials. And, as it turns out, there's a distinct art to packing a picnic basket, which will help ensure that what needs to be cold stays cold and delicate foods don't get squashed. To that end, we spoke with some picnic experts to get their top packing tips.
What to Pack: Picnic Basket or Cooler?
Our experts say either (or both) work. "We're partial to a classic old-fashioned picnic basket with a flat top, because it's both charming and practical," say Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson, authors of The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket ($19.95, amazon.com). "If you're sitting on a blanket, particularly on uneven terrain (like sand, a riverbank, or a lumpy outdoor amphitheater lawn), it does double duty as a table (which really helps cut down on unfortunate rosé spills)." The pair's favorite is a beautiful woven willow basket ($54.95, food52.com). It even has a removable blue-and-white striped liner that you can toss in the wash (see aforementioned rosé spills).
Avid picknicker Kelsey Barnard Clark, chef and proprietor of KBC in Dothan, Alabama, and author of Southern Grit: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Cook ($29.95, amazon.com), is partial to a backpack cooler, and she uses the YETI Hopper Backflip Soft Cooler ($299.98, amazon.com) almost every weekend. "I have two children and going hands-free is necessary when you're going to and from the car," she says. "Coolers can get heavy quick once you pack everything in, so a backpack is much easier to carry. You don't have to worry about it slipping on or off your shoulders, it's great!"
A small cooler and a traditional wicker basket are the choice of Rachel Rotunno, owner of Grazing Cape Cod, a business that sets up bespoke picnic experiences. She says this setup offers the best of both worlds. "Keep your cool items in the hand cooler, and the plates, blanket, and other dry items in the basket," she recommends. "Not only does the basket look cute, it is functional as well!"
Use Reusable Containers to Pack your Feast
In addition to reducing the amount of trash you need to take with you post-picnic, having the right reusable containers will make it easier to plan and pack on-the-go meals in the future––you'll be a picnic pro in no time. "Bento boxes are the perfect picnic accessory!" says Rotunno. "They are the right size and have individualized compartments that make things easy so you don't need to carry around different containers." Clark is a big fan of non-spill glass containers like this 18-piece set ($29.99, amazon.com).
"Like many people, we're trying to eliminate as much single-use plastic as possible," Hanel and Stevenson say. Their picks include glass Ball mason jars (from $5.49, target.com) or sturdy French-made Luminarc tumblers ($15.49, williams-sonoma.com) for lentil and grain salads, summer vegetable slaws, gazpacho, and fresh salsas and dips. "We also love lightweight silicone Stasher bags for sliced baguettes, sandwiches, and leftovers." Another tip from the experts: "And it's nice to have something to snack on while you set up the picnic and wait for everyone to arrive," so the pair pack an assortment of things to nibble on such as Marcona almonds, roasted pistachios, Castelvetrano olives, assorted pickles, hard-boiled eggs, cheese and charcuterie, crackers, crudités, and something chocolatey—in layered stainless steel tiffins (from $24, food52.com). "Just unpack and unstack, and you've got a superb snack spread in minutes," say Hanel and Stevenson.
Put the Heaviest Items on the Bottom and Delicate Items at the Top
If you're packing your entire picnic in just one picnic basket or cooler, Clark recommends putting some bottled drinks in the freezer for a few minutes, then placing them at the bottom to double as ice packs. Hanel and Stevenson recommend packing your basket or cooler the way you'd pack a grocery bag, layering heavy items on the bottom and more delicate items like bread, chips, soft cheeses, and homemade galettes on top. "If you're prepping for a long summer beach day, keep chronology in mind as well; dinner items belong on the bottom, snacks on top." For particularly delicate items, Hanel and Stevenson say to pack them in airtight reusable containers rather than simply wrapping them in parchment or cling wrap to ensure they arrive at your picnic site intact.
Keep Cold Items Cool with a Quality Cooler and Ice Packs or Bagged Ice
"Your standard cooler with an ice pack should work perfectly," Rotunno says. To prevent ice packs from making the contents of your cooler wet, she recommends putting them inside plastic freezer bags. "If your picnic site isn't too much of a schlep, bring your cooler, and perhaps a collapsible wagon to do the heavy lifting," Hanel and Stevenson recommend. "But if you're on foot, either invest in a good quality compact cooler like a Yeti Hopper (from $199.99, yeti.com) and add ice packs or bagged ice, or layer a few reusable ice packs on the bottom of your basket and store items that should be chilled, such as salads and meats, directly on top."
If the weight of your portable feast isn't a concern, Hanel and Stevenson recommend bringing separate coolers for food and drinks. "Opening the lid every 10 seconds and digging around for another iced tea or bottled cocktail can disturb delicate food items and drain your ice power," they explain.
Don't Forget to Bring a Trash Bag
Leave your picnic site cleaner than you found it by taking empty bottles, disposable packaging, and food scraps with you. Rotunno notes that even plastic shopping bags will do.