Planning a Picnic? Here's How to Pull It Off Smoothly, From Packing Your Tote to Choosing the Perfect Location

We've got the answers to your most pressing picnic questions, including keeping food and drinks cold, and why a good picnic blanket is vital. 

people having picnic
Photo: Valeriia Sviridova / Getty Images

One of the most popular ways to savor summer is to enjoy food outside, and what better way is there to do that than with a picnic? What's not to love about sitting on a blanket in the park or at the lake, surrounded by your favorite foods and beverages? But without some forward planning, the laid-back dining experience can go from relaxing to stressful in the blink of an eye—your food didn't transport well, you forgot to chill your beverages, and your blanket isn't big enough for all of your guests to sit on. These are all easily avoidable problems. We asked two experts to share their best tips for planning a picnic. Keep these pointers in mind in the days leading up to your outdoor fête and the event will go off without a hitch.

Choose Your Picnic Location

One reason people opt for a picnic over other styles of outdoor dining is because of the ambiance. A picnic gives you the chance to travel to your favorite park, lake, or beach and really enjoy the location. While you can have a picnic anywhere—even in your own backyard—it's important to put thought into your location. Wendy Weston, founder of Perfect Picnic New York City, says to consider the type of experience you want to have and go from there. If it's a celebratory occasion, she recommends going to an area with action. "If it's intimate, try to find a spot that's a little off the beaten path," she adds.

Select Foods That Transport Well

The most important thing to consider when planning the menu for your picnic is longevity, says Weston. It's vital to choose foods that can sit out for a while. "Bring whole foods, like meats, cheeses, olives, and jams," she says, adding this allows people to create their "own perfect bite." Also pack in-season whole fruits, like strawberries, as a snack. "Cut fruit is also great, but it doesn't last as long," she says.

Weston also suggests bringing pizza or quiche to a picnic, and her overall rule of thumb is the simpler the better. "Any time you're trying to overdo it at a picnic, you're heading in the wrong direction," she says. If you're planning a picnic potluck, Weston stresses the importance of coordinating with your fellow picnic-goers, perhaps assigning them what to bring, so you don't all end up bringing the same thing.

Stay Hydrated

Since picnics are typically a warm-weather activity, Weston emphasizes the importance of staying hydrated—especially during a daytime picnic—and recommends packing water. "If you want to bring drinks beside water, Weston says iced tea and lemonade are great options, noting that you can even go the extra mile and infuse them with fresh herbs like basil or mint. For cocktails, Weston recommends choosing something light-tasting that you can make ahead of time, that way you're not carrying glass or bottles into the park.

Pack Smartly

Start by filling the bottom of an insulated bag with frozen water bottles, Weston says, and place the heaviest items and items that need to be kept cold on top of the water bottles. Work your way to the top, packing the lightest and most delicate items last. Things that can be kept at room temperature, such as a bag of chips, would also go into your bag last. To keep beverages cold, food stylist and avid picnicker Laura Rege says to keep them in a Thermos. Store drinks in their own separate insulated bag with ice.

Lighten Your Load

Chances are you'll have a lot to carry to your picnic site on the day of the event. To make that easier, Weston recommends using a wagon or grocery cart with wheels. She says it can be difficult to get to your destination without using something that rolls because food ends up shifting in the bags as you lug them from the car to your picnic spot—plus, they're heavy.

Bring a Quality Blanket

Another key part of setting up a successful picnic is the blanket you choose. Weston prefers the blankets from Annie Selke. "They are nice cotton blankets that hold their form better as people sort of lounge and hang out," she says. She also recommends placing a big canvas tarp underneath to protect the blanket from getting dirty.

Set Up Your Food and Drinks

Keep your food and drinks organized by setting them up in one designated and shaded area. Weston says this encourages people to get up and go fix their plate, instead of "having it all thrown in the middle" to pick at. You can serve the food in the containers you packed it in, but Weston recommends bringing a board if you plan to offer charcuterie, and to think about how you'd set it up ahead of time so you're not scrambling day of. To serve drinks, Rege says to bring reusable cups that are easy to stack, light, and hard to break, like Duralex or Govino.

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