A Guide to Hosting a Picnic, Including the Best Foods to Pack
Whether you're hosting a big cookout with friends or just enjoying your weeknight dinner on the back patio, summer is the best time to enjoy some fresh air with a delicious dish in hand. Perhaps one of the most fun ways to enjoy food outside is by packing your meal into a basket and venturing to your nearest park, beach, lake, or other scenic spot for a picnic. While a picnic is a relatively laid-back way to dine, there are a few ways to elevate the experience—starting with the foods and beverages you bring. To help you plan your next picnic, we consulted food stylist, recipe developer, and keen picnicker Laura Rege, who shares her advice on what to make and bring to a picnic and how to set it up at your picnic spot.
Plan Your Menu
Of course, a picnic starts with the food. "The best picnic dishes hold up to the heat, are easy to transport, and require no more than a few finishing touches once you get on site," says Rege, adding that most of your dishes should be totally prepared at home and ready to eat once you unpack.
Rege suggests picking a selection of items that everyone can enjoy without needing forks or plates, such as meats, cheeses, and finger food appetizers. "Then, if you want to make it a meal, add in at least two main elements that are more filling and bring the cutlery or plates—but neither of these dishes should require excessive cutting or work," she says.
Another thing to keep in mind when planning your menu is to aim for a variety of colors and textures to your spread. "It's the visual of a meal that first gets us excited to eat," Rege says, noting that in the summer when there is a bounty of colorful vegetables and fruits it's easy to bring color to your picnic meal, whether that's with bright red wedges of watermelon or a colorful crudités of carrot, cucumber, and summer squash to accompany your meats and cheeses.
"For mains, I love an egg-based dish like a quiche or something savory and pizza-like that you can hold in your hand," Rege says and suggests you try our Spinach Feta Pizza Slab Pie. It's made by filling store-bought pizza dough—a convenient solution to minimize prep work—with spinach, mozzarella, and feta cheese. If it's too hot to turn on your stovetop, oven, or grill to make something for the picnic, she suggests a cheese or charcuterie board made with store-bought ingredients.
Of course, you'll need a few side dishes to help round out your spread. For those, Rege says to consider options that utilize fresh summer produce, such as a tomato salad or a simple caprese, which always tend to be crowd pleasers and are great no-cook dishes. She also notes that chilled soup (like our tomato and bell pepper-based Gazpacho) is a fun and refreshing option that can be sipped in little cups. "Bring it in a thermos so it stays nice and cool," she says.
And for dessert—which Rege says is something you should never forget!—she recommends bringing along our Peach Lattice Pie or opting for a sweet ending you can pick up and eat with your hands, such as this Peach and Raspberry Galette. Both these recipes use peak summer fruits, but if a bar cookie is more your style, Rege says that's also an excellent choice.
Pair Beverages with Your Food
You'll also need something to quench everyones' thirst, so don't forget to bring beverage options to your picnic. Pack bottles of seltzer in your cooler and garnish with sliced citrus when you serve for a next-level touch.
Rege recommends making a pitcher cocktail. "Keep the drink cool in a thermos and pour out to serve," she says. "Bring a container with the garnish—it feels really special to add that final touch." And her pro tip is to make sure you're packing a drink everyone can enjoy, whether they want to consume alcohol or not, by bringing a mocktail that can be turned into a cocktail. Also consider the heat when you select a cocktail, Rege recommends something thirst quenching and lower in alcohol, since you'll be drinking outside in the heat.
Pack the Necessities
Think about what items you'll need in order to serve your food and drinks once you arrive at your picnic location. "Light wooden or bamboo cutting boards are great for small bites and charcuterie. Mains and desserts can be presented in the dish they are prepared or brought in," Rege says, adding that mason jars are ideal for serving condiments. To keep the food contained on the blanket, she recommends bringing lightweight wicker trays that you can place underneath the food to keep it contained. For beverages, bring cups that are easy to stack, light, and hard to break—Rege likes Duralex or Govino. Also remember to bring a washable tote bag or repurpose your picnic basket for food disposal.
Prep the Ambiance
You can make the picnic feel more luxe with some simple additions. Rege recommends packing a beautiful picnic blanket, as well as some pillows or cushions for ultimate comfort. "For picnics that might go into the evening, I add ambiance lighting with solar lanterns or strings of solar bulb lighting on the trees surrounding the picnic," she says. Finally, Rege says citronella candles or other bug protection are an absolute must to pack.