After a long, cold winter, there's nothing better than relaxing outside on the first warm day of the year. For several centuries now, people have been combining the pleasures of sunshine and fresh air with another of life's great pleasures: food.
Like many great culinary traditions, picnicking comes to us from the French, who were having "pique-niques" at least as far back as 1692. Originally, a picnic was an outdoor potluck, an informal feast to which each guest brought a dish [source: Mikkelson]. That's still an enjoyable way to eat, although these days it's not at all unusual for one person to do all the cooking for a picnic.
Variations on the picnic include the family reunion picnic -- often a buffet-style spread for an annual gathering -- and the outdoor grilling party, in which one or two chefs fire up the grill for a large group of people. In the United States, picnics are especially popular on national holidays such as Memorial Day or Independence Day. But you don't need any better excuse than a sunny day and a few friends.
In this article, we'll look at the basics of having a picnic -- what to bring, what to cook and what games to play. We'll also explore some ways to make the picnic special, whether for a romantic occasion or for a gourmet meal. Finally, we'll discuss ways to keep the picnic green. But first, what are the essentials no picnic should be without? Head over to the next page to find out.
Perfect Picnic Foods
What defines the perfect picnic food? Here are a few qualities to keep in mind:
- Portability. What can you easily carry? There's a reason no one brings a crock of soup or a tall wedding-style cake to picnics.
- Ease of serving and eating. There's no rule that says you have to eat everything with your fingers, but it doesn't hurt. Think cupcakes or cookies rather than cake, a bowl of strawberries rather than a fruit mold.
- Shareability. Picnics are social interactions that center on food, and they're much more fun if you can share the experience of eating. Have enough food for everyone to have a taste.
- Heat tolerance. Legends abound of mayonnaise causing food poisoning when it's left out in the sun. Sushi might not be the best choice, either.
- Price. A picnic is a relaxed gathering, not the place to impress everyone with your Michelin-quality cooking. And remember that you could lose some of your food to birds, raccoons or other critters. Stick to simple ingredients and make it an affordable meal.
Of course, some picnic foods are classics:
- Sandwiches. Instead of making them ahead of time, bring a variety of breads and cold cuts to create a sandwich bar. This way the bread doesn't get soggy, and each person gets his or her preference.
- Fruit. You don't need much more than a good snacking apple, sharp cheese and a baguette to have a fantastic picnic for two.
- Crudité -- that is, raw veggies. Carrot sticks, celery, grape tomatoes and broccoli florets bring flavor and color to any spread.
- S'mores. If you'll have a grill or campfire at your picnic, these treats -- sandwiches of graham crackers, chocolate, and toasted marshmallow -- are practically de rigueur in the United States.
- Hot dogs or bratwurst. Again, this assumes you'll have access to a grill, which opens up a whole range of other possibilities: shish kebab, veggie skewers, burgers and more.
- Chips. They're convenient, but there's no shortage of more healthful and flavorful alternatives. Consider tortilla chips and guacamole or salsa.
On the next page are a few more things to pack before you head to the park.
A few minutes of preparation will help everyone enjoy the picnic. Here's a pre-picnic checklist:
- A blanket. If it's rained recently, you might also want to bring a tarpaulin to put under the blanket.
- A picnic basket or sturdy tote.
- An ice chest. This one's optional, but it becomes mandatory if you're bringing something that should stay cold, such as champagne, ice cream, gelato or deviled eggs.
- Forks, knives and spoons.
- Serving utensils. There's no need to be too formal, but make sure people don't have to use their fingers to help themselves to the salad.
- A serrated knife and cutting board. You'll almost always discover you need to cut or spread some sort of food. A sharp serrated knife will handle bread, cheese, fruit and veggies.
- Plates and cups. Some people like paper, some like plastic, some like reusable goods. Lightweight melamine dishes offer a good combination of portability, sturdiness and reusability. Whatever you use, if it's disposable, make sure you've cleaned it up thoroughly, and if it's reusable, have a way to contain the mess while you get the dishes home.
- A dish towel.
- Reusable plastic containers for food. Not only can you seal these to keep out bugs, but they're far more portable than plates covered in plastic wrap.
Some other supplies you may want to have handy:
- Hand sanitizer. Sure, a little dirt is good for you, but any time you're sharing food, sanitizer is a good plan.
- Sunscreen. You can get a sunburn in the amount of time it takes to eat lunch [source: eMedicineHealth].
- A sun umbrella or a large-brimmed hat.
- Water. The park might have a water fountain, but then again, it might not. Fill a couple of reusable bottles before you leave, just in case.
- Insect repellent. Bring some natural, nontoxic insect repellent for guests -- finger food and pesticides don't mix. For a large or lengthy gathering, you might consider bringing a few citronella candles (available at most home and garden stores).
- One or two small plastic bags.
- A trash bag.
Don't forget to wash fruits and vegetables before you leave the house - it'll be easier at the kitchen sink than at a water fountain.
Up next: How to have a romantic picnic à deux. Read on.
Romantic Picnic Ideas
To plan a romantic picnic, keep a few principles in mind:
- It's still a picnic, not a formal meal. Not everything will go as you plan, and that's fine -- couples wind up telling stories about the times plans change unexpectedly. If you drive for two hours and a thunderstorm starts just as you reach the national park, don't pout or turn around. Have a picnic in the car.
- Surprise can be charming. Pack candles, or a vase and flowers, to adorn your picnic table (or blanket). Learn your sweetie's favorite dessert and smuggle it into the picnic basket.
- Humor is important. Silly touches -- like formal china for peanut butter sandwiches -- help new couples discover their ability to laugh together. (If you go this route, do be sure you have a secure way to pack the china.)
- Food is one of the most sensual pleasures people can share. Try something you've never cooked before. Or, if she's always wanted to try a certain restaurant, order food from its catering department.
A big part of romance is location. Choose an unusual spot -- something that can become your special place as a couple. Does your city have a botanical garden? Any nearby beaches or national parks? Do any downtown buildings have rooftop gardens? Think about your personality as a couple. Do you prefer being somewhere secluded, or do you enjoy being surrounded by people?
Some outdoor music series, such as the Santa Fe Opera or Chicago's Ravinia Festival, permit picnics or tailgate parties. Outdoor theater and movies can also make for wonderful picnicking. Pack a gourmet spread (see the next page to learn how) and treat your love to an evening of art under the stars.
Speaking of stars, a nighttime picnic is a memorable way to show your love. Even better? A picnic that actually lets you wish on a star. Check StarDate.com to find the dates and best viewing locations for upcoming meteor showers.
Some touches, like serenades, are classics. Bring a guitar or other musical instrument. If you have a song as a couple, surprise your love by learning it. Or, for the grand gesture, hire a musician to serenade you. Local wedding planners will have lists of appropriate solo performers.
What does the adventurous foodie pack for a picnic? Read on for ways to make the picnic a memorable culinary experience.
Gourmet Picnic Ideas
Having a gourmet picnic doesn't mean you have to abandon simplicity. Instead, focus on foods that rely on natural flavors and don't need to be heated at the last minute. A few ingredients, well chosen, will be more effective than a recipe that involves hours of effort and trips to specialty stores.
- Good bread is a must. Try a hearty peasant loaf.
- Bring a bottle of high-quality olive oil for breads and salads.
- Elevate sandwiches to an art. Spread the bread with Dijon mustard, pesto or tapenade. Instead of standard cold cuts, bring grilled portobello mushrooms, prosciutto crudo, smoked salmon and roast turkey breast. Ditch the supermarket brick of orange cheddar -- top your sandwiches with Brie, salty Gruyere or tangy goat cheese. Skip iceberg lettuce in favor of spinach, watercress or arugula.
- For color, flavor and ease of preparation, it's hard to beat fruit. You don't need much more than a good cheese pairing to have a splendid meal. If you're grilling, remember that fruits such as pears and nectarines grill well, and they're wonderful complements to poultry, salad or ice cream. Cut the fruit in half, brush or mist it with a little grapeseed oil and put it on the grill just long enough for dark brown grill marks to appear.
- Salads are wonderful ways to combine summer flavors. Consider a classic, simple Caprese salad -- sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and leaves of fresh basil. Everything depends on the quality of the tomatoes, which should be vine-ripe and never refrigerated. Heirloom and grape varieties have reliable flavors [source: Cirillo].
- Try a tasting picnic, with a variety of bite-size nibbles. A great way to go: a nibble-based food tradition, like Spanish tapas frias or Italian antipasti.
For other ideas, take a look at Mark Bittman's list of 101 picnic foods. Bittman writes the "Minimalist" food column for the New York Times, and his no-fuss suggestions -- such as combining champagne and sorbet in a thermos -- are ideal for a lazy, sunny afternoon.
Or consider the recipes of Alice Waters, the groundbreaking chef of Chez Panisse. Waters focuses on local, seasonal produce -- the perfect complement to your surroundings.
There's more to do on a picnic than eat. On the next page, we'll take a look at some ideas for recreation.
For many picnickers, the food is just the prelude to the real recreation: outdoor games. Your group may not need much more than a ball to toss back and forth, or you may want to organize a full game.
- Badminton or volleyball. Some parks have nets. You can also find an inexpensive portable net, appropriate for both sports, at a sporting goods store.
- Baseball, softball or kickball. Many city parks have diamonds for public use. Even if your park doesn't, you can designate bases with rocks or other landmarks. Baseball, softball and kickball all follow more or less the same rules, but kickball requires the least skill and equipment, and it avoids the safety hazard of the bat.
- Croquet. This depends on the ready availability of a croquet set and a lawn on which you can set up wickets without disturbing anyone else, so it's better suited to picnics in the backyard than at the park. But it has a great advantage: almost everyone can play, regardless of strength or size. A game of croquet is an easy way for kids and adults to play together.
- Tag. It's a schoolyard classic for a reason: It requires no equipment, it lets everyone run around and it has endless variations -- TV tag, freeze tag and so on.
- Cricket. It baffles Americans, but it's wildly popular elsewhere.
- Football. It baffles Europeans, but it's wildly popular in the United States. On a picnic, where the ground may be rocky, keep things safe -- play touch football rather than the rougher tackle variety.
- Soccer (or, outside of the United States, football). It's widely considered the most popular sport in the world [source: Ozanian]. On a picnic, it gets points for flexibility of team size and involvement of all players.
- Catch games, like Frisbee or Hacky Sack. No one really wins or loses these games, so they're great for uncompetitive groups.
Whatever sport you choose, take appropriate precautions. Wear supportive shoes (no playing football in flip-flops). Remember that it's possible to sweat off sunscreen -- don't forget to reapply periodically. Drink plenty of water, and take breaks to cool off.
How can you make sure your picnic is not just fun, but also environmentally friendly? Take a look at the next page for some green tips.
Having a Green Picnic
A picnic celebrates the natural world, so it's sort of pointless to have a picnic that destroys that world. Some ways to keep your picnic green:
- Use reusable plates, cups and utensils. Plastic utensils allow you to avoid washing up, but their utility ends there. It's cheaper (and greener) to bring metal utensils from home. Toss the dirty ones into a used dish, so you can take them home for easy washing.
- Choose cloth napkins, not paper. Ditto for the dishtowels.
- Buy local produce from farmers' markets. In general, the less your food has traveled, the less pollution it has created.
- Try for an all-vegetarian spread. Modern mass production of meat has high energy costs and creates a lot of pollution -- more global-warming emissions than all oil-based forms of transportation put together [source: Freston].
- Instead of driving, bike or walk to the park. Or, if your city offers it, take mass transit or use a car-share program.
- It should go without saying, but pick up all your trash. Abide by the camper's tradition of leaving the picnic site cleaner than it was when you found it. Better still, try not to create any trash at all. Don't use disposable containers. Recycle whatever you can, and collect food scraps for composting.
- Don't set off fireworks such as bottle rockets, which create litter that you can't always find.
If you're serious about green eating, take it a step farther -- back to the grocery store. Stop buying food that comes in nonrecyclable containers. Try to minimize your use of plastics, many of which contain petrochemicals (oil derivatives) [source: Ophart]. Look for containers made of biodegradable materials such as bulrushes or corn-based polymers. And abide by Michael Pollan's maxim: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" [source: Pollan]. It's a safe assumption that any food that has been synthesized or processed has been responsible for some pollution.
Following these tips can help you ensure that you'll be able to come back to the same picnic spot, year after year. Go ahead -- start a tradition!
To learn more, visit the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Bittman, Marc. "101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics." New York Times. July 2, 2008 (Accessed 2/5/09). http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/dining/02mini.html
- Cirillo, Al. "The Perfect Insalata Caprese." In Italy. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.initaly.com/itathome/food/caprese.htm
- Freston, Kathy. "Eating Vegetarian is Taking Global Warming Personally." Alternet. November 20, 3007. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.alternet.org/environment/69275/
- Ophart, Charles. "Petrochemicals." Elmhurst College: Virtual ChemBook. 2003. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/vchembook/325petrochem.html
- Ozanian, Michael. "The Business of Soccer." Forbes.com. 2004. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.forbes.com/2005/03/30/05soccerland.html
- Pollan, Michael. "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Author's website. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.michaelpollan.com/indefense.php
- "Sunburn: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment." eMedicineHealth. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.emedicinehealth.com/sunburn/article_em.htm
- "2009 Meteor Showers and Viewing Tips." StarDate Online. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://stardate.org/nightsky/meteors/
- "Welcome to Chez Panisse." Website of Chez Panisse. (Accessed 2/5/09) http://www.chezpanisse.com/