How to Plan a Picnic

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Plastic containers of colorful food in a basket.

How to Plan a Perfect Picnic

The weather has warmed up, and you’re reading to pack up your meals and enjoy them outdoors. But that seamless, successful picnic takes some planning. Having a checklist and some ideas for what foods work best can keep the easy/breezy notion of a summer picnic just that.

Person putting food containers into a basket.

Whether you are looking to create a super simple alfresco lunch, or a more stylish meal, whether you are creating a potluck menu for a group, or a romantic repast for two, you’ll want to be prepared;  I have learned the hard way that garbage bags and bottle openers don’t appear in fields.

The Carriers

This can be anything from a classic picnic basket to a flat-bottomed sturdy bag to a metal or plastic bin or box, and you’ll want to include some sort of cooler to keep drinks and chilled foods cold.

The Food 

There are a lot of options, but also some things to avoid. You want simple dishes that require no fussing over at the picnic itself. You want to steer clear of fragile foods (this isn’t the time for assembled canapes), items that won’t get soggy, that are delicious at room temperature, that can stand up to some time in the sun, and that you can either eat with your hands, or just a fork – it’s hard to cut things on a paper plate balanced on your lap.

Table set with fruit, popcorn, cheese, and a colorful tablecloth.

How to Pack the Perfect Picnic: Everything you need to know (and everything you don’t want to forget to bring!)

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Usually picnics don’t necessarily have the prescribed flow of a regular indoor meal. It’s quite acceptable and lovely that someone might be munching on a piece of frittata while others are eating cookies. But if you plan on a more leisurely alfresco afternoon, you may want to put out some nibbley things to start the meal. Cheese plus bread or crackers are always welcome, supplemented with some olives, cornichons, nuts, dried fruit, and condiments like fig jam or chutney.

If you make a crostini topping or two, you can put that out along with some toasted baguette slices brushed with olive oil and let people assemble their own. Think about a dip and some cut up vegetables for dunking, and there are a lot of interesting salsas to make or buy to pair with your favorite chips. 

Peach and Roasted Red Pepper Salsa / Katie Workman / / Photo by Cheyenne Cohen

Salads for Picnics

If you are bringing a lettuce salad, or anything that can wilt quickly, pack the dressing separately and toss it there. Sturdier grain and vegetables salads can be made and dressed just before leaving (some grain, pasta or potato salads can happily be made up to a couple of days ahead of time).

Best Picnic Foods

Sandwiches are always good, but make sure they are packed pretty tightly in a container so they don’t fall apart. Fried chicken, grilled or roasted chicken (so good cold), salads featuring proteins like chicken or tuna, quiches, frittatas, truly anything you are happy eating at room temperature is fair game. Make sure to include at least one vegetarian and one gluten-free option if you think those might be needed.

Italian Tuna Salad / Katie Workman / / Photo by Cheyenne Cohen


Steer clear of desserts that need to be cut and plated, like pies and cakes. Go with pre-cut durable sweets like brownies, bar cookies, drop cookies. Grapes, cherries, cut up melons, and strawberries are good packable fruit offerings.

As for the drinks, you can either bring an assortment of things in cans or bottles (if you are going to a park, check to make sure that glass bottles and/or alcohol are allowed; boxed or canned wine may be your friend – there are some good ones out there!). Maybe pack a thermos or two of iced tea or lemonade. Keep the drinks chilled with lots of ice.

Disposable or Reusable? 

While we are all trying to be greener, this is definitely a question. For a smaller group, reusables are often more attractive, and more eco-friendly. But there are obvious advantages to having your picnic involve minimal cleanup. Bring an extra bag for recycling!

Chicken, cherries, and popcorn in plastic containers with a basket.

Make That List!

Here is a sample checklist, to prevent those “did anyone pack the napkins?” moments. Pick and choose what makes sense for your picnic!

  • Picnic basket or other portable container
  • Cooler with ice or cold packs
  • Picnic Blanket (preferably waterproof in case the ground is damp)
  • Picnic Chairs
  • Portable picnic table 
  • Plates
  • Cups
  • Utensils (for eating and serving)
  • Napkins
  • Paper Towels (and maybe wet wipes)
  • Dishtowels (these can be used to anchor dishes in transport, and also for clean up)
  • Drinks (make sure you also have plenty of water)
  • Bottle Opener and/or corkscrew
  • Cutting Board (also useful as a level serving surface, perfect for drinks) 
  • Sharp knife (even if you don’t plan to cut things, it might come in handy)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Condiments (if you have leftover ketchup, mustard or mayo packets from take-out, put them to use!)
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Hats
  • Garbage bags
  • Flashlight (if it could get dark)
  • Games and activity equipment: Frisbees, balls, bubbles, water guns….whatever the crowd likes.
  • Extra containers or sealable bags for packing up leftovers, utensils, etc.

Packing Your Picnic

Pull out everything you plan to bring. Pack your containers with heaviest and sturdiest things on the bottom, and the lighter more delicate items on top. Make sure your picnic blanket is very accessible – it’s the first thing you’ll want to unpack! Make sure drinks and perishable foods are chilled before you pack them in the cooler, with plenty of ice or cold packs.

Plastic containers of colorful food in a basket.

At the Picnic:

Keep all of the food out of the sun, especially chilled items in the cooler, so that the items inside stay colder longer. Look for trees or other shade options.

And finally picnics are best when they aren’t rushed, so allow for a nice stretch of time to relax before splitting that final blondie, shaking the crumbs off the blanket, and packing up for home.

Butterscotch Brownies aka Blondies

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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