Let's Go On a Picnic!

Happy International Picnic Day!

I don't know about your family, but it doesn't take a lot to make my kids happy. Throw a blanket on the floor and call it a picnic and they are ecstatic. (Talk about low-cost fun!) I'm not sure why food tastes so much better when it is not eaten on the table, but somehow it is.

Summer time is the perfect time for a picnic. Combine it with a hike and you've got both exercise and fun at the same time. Or gather some friends and family at your favorite park and enjoy some time outdoors while the kids play. Whatever you do, these guidelines can help you to keep your experience both doable and safe.

If you're hiking to your picnic spot:

1.  Know your destination.

If you're going to hike to your picnic spot, take some time to find out whether food is even permitted, and if so, what precautions are necessary. It would also be wise to check on potential dangers, such as wild animals, poison ivy, flooding and the like.

2. Keep it as simple as possible.

This is true especially if you're hiking! Bring lightweight paper goods if necessary and plan carefully how much food to bring. Who wants to lug it all back down the trail or throw it away? Even better: pack foods in containers that double as plates!

3. Bring water with you.

Now I know I just said to keep things lightweight, but it would be wise to not skimp on the water, especially if you are going somewhere where it might not be available. Hopefully, you'll be drinking water along your hike and it can do double duty if needed to wash hands. Even if you are going to the park, a bathroom may not be close by. And of course, don't forget to stay hydrated, especially if it's hot!

If you're headed to the park:

4. Keep your cool.  

  • Your goal: keep foods either colder than 40 degrees F or hotter than 140 degrees F. In between is where food spoils most quickly.
  • When packing your cooler, pack one with perishable foods in one container, drinks in another. My guess is that your drink cooler will be opened a lot more often. If you include your food in that cooler, it may spoil faster, as cold air escapes every time you open it.
  • Chill your foods before putting it into the cooler, then put them in right before you leave. Do not put room temperature foods in a cooler to chill them. They may end up melting your ice too quickly, which will work against you. Prepare chilled foods earlier or the day before if possible.
  • In your food cooler, pack heavy foods on the bottom, with lighter foods on top. If possible, use large ice blocks (you can purchase these) rather than cubes, as these melt slower. If possible, fill your cooler three-quarters with food, and the rest with ice blocks or packs.
  • Freeze water bottles to use as cooling packs.
  • If there's not enough food to fill your cooler, you can a) find a smaller cooler, or b) fill the rest with ice. From what I heard, full coolers stay cool longer.

5. Packing tips

  • Instead of packing your salads (lettuce or pasta) in bulky containers, put them in plastic ziploc bags. Transfer into a bowl when it's time to serve.
  • If you're serving potato or macaroni salads, chill well beforehand, and consider putting them in ice filled trays for serving.
  • If you're grilling meats and you will be traveling a ways to your site or if you're not cooking them right away, you may wish to freeze them, wrapped in plastic if needed. This might be a no-brainer, but keep raw meats away from cooked foods. Note: partially cooking your meat to speed up cooking time is not recommended for food safety.
  • Hot foods (e.g. hot dogs) can be kept hotter longer by filling a thermos with boiling water. Cover your thermos and let it stand for 5 minutes. Dump out the hot water and then refill with your hot foods.
  • Bring plastic bags for dirty dishes and/or trash.
  • Pack your nonperishables in reverse: start with napkins, serving and tableware on the bottom, and blanket on the top.
  • Consider having a picnic basket in your trunk for spontaneous picnics, equipped with plastic utensils, napkins, plates, hand sanitizer, blanket, paper towels, plastic bags, insect repellent and sunscreen. Optional: wet wipes, cutting board, bottle opener, knife.

Bring on the Food!

The best part about a picnic is the food! For my family, it doesn't even need to be fancy. Stick with finger foods like deli meat, cheese, fruit, and bread. Grapes, strawberries, carrot and celery sticks, baby tomatoes, cucumber slices, cookies...all make great menu food! Think simple and portable. This is especially great for those hiking trips. Stay away from sticky foods or foods that would melt (e.g. ice cream, chocolate, etc.). You may get unwanted friends joining you in your feast!

Other ideas:

Other websites to check out:

TLC Top 10 Picnic Foods

Picnic Recipes and Tips from Food Network

Any other tips?