The days are warming up, with the sun shining and the birds chirping. The flowers are blooming, and the trees are turning green again. It is the time of year to start planning picnics again. Whether you are considering a family fun outing, a cozy sunset date, or a gathering of friends, there are always plenty of tasks to consider in planning.
If you are wondering how to plan a picnic, wonder no more. This one-stop-shop will lay out the details for you. From when to prepare it to what you should bring, food safety considerations, and even some fantastic recipes, this article has it all for you. Create your list as you, checking them off before leaving for your fun-filled event.
Picking the Date and Time for a Picnic
Unless you live somewhere where winters are mild and sunny, you can plan a picnic in the spring, summer, or fall. Every season has its perks and advantages. Allergies are strongest in the springtime and there is a potential for heat related issues in the summer. Be sure to plan accordingly.
From about April through June, you can plan a picnic to last all afternoon. A picnic on a sunny spring afternoon is cheery and delightful with the budding of the trees, blooming of the flowers, and the awakening of snoozing animals.
July and August can be brutal in the sweltering afternoons, so planning can be set up for brunch before the heat kicks in. The warm summer mornings, before the heat kicks in, are a great way to get in some activity before the heat has you running for the cool indoors. Romantic sunset picnics can be set for those summer months as well when the air starts to cool as the sun goes down.
September through October, and possibly into November (depending upon where you live), can see beautiful colors and fun leaf piles to jump through. You can watch the squirrels run about, collecting their winter harvest (bring some shelled nuts with you for extra entertainment).
How to Choose a Park
No matter where you are, there is always a park available to have a picnic. Parks are important facilities in any community, attracting families and tourists to help build and sustain local economies. Parks are a place for people to go and enjoy nature, typically without having to travel to country locations. They encourage activity and help clean the air.
For small intimate picnics, smaller parks that have fewer visitors can enhance the feel of a private setting. Consider a park by a lake, river, or ocean to help set the scene. Or on a mountain near a waterfall if you both like hiking. Let nature be the background music.
Large parks with toy sets and tables can provide convenience and hours of entertainment for the kids. Parks with gazebos and grill stands give you the setting you need for cooking on site. Sometimes the larger parks also have areas to set up nets (or have them already) for a game of volleyball.
When considering which park to use for a picnic, be sure to take into consideration everything that you will be doing. Are you planning on sharing a few alcoholic drinks with friends? Is there room for everyone to park? Do you need a table, or will a blanket on the ground suffice? What about handicap accessibility?
Some parks will allow alcohol consumption, but only as long as there are no public disturbances. Some parks will only allow alcohol if you obtain a permit first. Always check with your park authority before bringing alcohol as it could end up being far more than you wanted on your picnic.
Most large parks will have tables, grill stands, adequate parking, and bathroom stalls. Small parks may have limited parking, no tables, and may not even allow grilling onsite. So be sure to check into what the park has and allows before choosing your location.
If you live in one of the large cities across the United States, there are plenty of park options. Central Park, in New York City, is vast with 843 acres to choose from for a picnic. From a castle view to a cityscape, to water scenery, Central Park has it all.
Denver, Colorado, has a fantastic selection of parks to choose from for a fun day. Enjoy water fountains and flower beds at Centennial Gardens. Picnic outside the Denver Zoo and Museum of Nature & Science. Or even visit an 1859 homestead.
In the city of Los Angeles, California, Grand Park provides a break from the city and is in the heart of downtown. Echo Park has a lake to enjoy some water activities or to just watch the swans. Or, check out LACMA, home to the infamous La Brea Tarpits.
In St. Louis, Missouri, consider having a picnic at the Missouri Botanical Garden. After you eat, you can stroll through the beautiful gardens. Lafayette Park is a little slice of heaven in a bustling city, with a little pond to sail on. For an impressive playground, picnic at Turtle Park where there is a giant turtle statue for the kids to play on.
What Should You Bring?
When you are considering how to plan a picnic, it is always best to make a list so that you can check off everything before you go. It is never fun to get to the park for your picnic, only to realize you have no plates, forks, or food. Consider making a picnic kit and putting items into it that you know you will always need.
When considering items to bring, consider having two containers, a cooler and a basket. Place the basket in the cooler with picnic items when not in use. Use one container for the tableware and nonperishables and the cooler for food and beverages.
Here are some other items to consider putting on the picnic kit list:
- One or two coolers (one for food and one for beverages)
- Basket or large, sturdy bag for tableware, games, and necessities
- Dinnerware – when possible, go for reusable ware to minimize trash
- Paper towels/napkins to help keep things clean (including hands)
- Blanket or tablecloth
- A bag for trash
- A bag for dirty dishes
- Games and activities
- Wine and bottle opener – here are some reviews on excellent 2-in-1 options!
- Large umbrella for shade or bird protection
- Hats to protect the heads
- Bug spray for the pests
- Bottled water
- Toilet paper, because you just never know
- Hand sanitizer, in case there’s no running water
- Bar-b-que utensils if your grilling
- And of course, the food!
What Foods Should You Consider?
Unless you plan on keeping everything in a cooler the whole time, plan for foods that are easy to eat and will not spoil in the sun. Another major thing to take into consideration is how many people will be eating. Is it just a light gathering or a romantic sunset date? Will there be kids?
The options are always there, no matter the setting. For a kid-friendly outing, consider making these amazing ham and cheese sandwiches. Add some juice boxes, fruits, and crackers and the kids will be snacking as they burn off their energy. A cheese, meat, and cracker tray is always a hit for the teenagers.
Fruit and picnic go hand in hand. Here is an easy fruit salad recipe with a dressing that binds everything together. For the more sophisticated tastes, here is an avocado & tomato salad recipe that is sure to please. Or perhaps a watermelon feta salad! Keep reading for even more picnic-friendly recipes.
Whatever it is that you desire, try to estimate how many people are going to be eating. The closer you can get to an accurate serving size, the lower your chances are of having to cart home a whole bunch of left-over food. Watching how much food you take on your picnic also helps reduce food waste. Waste not want not, as our mothers used to say.
Instead of taking entire jars of ketchup and mustard, save condiment packets when you eat out. Some stores also have the option of buying the condiment packets. But always make sure to keep the mayonnaise out of the heat, so it doesn’t spoil.
Finger friendly foods are always a good option for a picnic. They can include meat & cheese trays (with summer sausage), hard-boiled eggs, bread, crackers, fruits, sandwiches, and cookies.
If you’re grilling, consider marinating or prepping the meat the night before and freezing it in airtight containers or bags. Freezing the meat makes for easier transportation and less preparation on the day of the picnic.
For beverages, there are options besides bottled water. You can make individual drinks in mason jars for spill-proof transportation or have a large container with a lid that screws on. Consider making some lemonade or iced tea, both of which can be flavored with various things like mint and fruit. You can even combine the tea and lemonade to make an Arnold Palmer.
If it’s alcohol you’re going for, consider sangria or margaritas by the pitcher. Have a cooler of ice to keep the drinks cold. There is even a canned margarita option for convenience. And of course, there is always the beer option.
There are so many picnic-friendly foods that can make a typical picnic into an event that everyone will remember. Finger friendly foods are usually a staple at a picnic. Getting creative with the food options will make sure no one’s taste buds become bored with the same old meals.
Kids are known for being picky eaters. Add some variety to the menu options that will have them asking for more. For a kid-friendly picnic with a twist, consider some of these recipes that will wow the children:
- Sheet-pan Italian Subs
- Marshmallow Fruit Dip
- Lemon Chicken Wrap
- Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter, & Banana Sandwiches
- Chicken & Bacon Roll-Ups
- Avocado-Ranch Chicken Wraps
- Snack mix with goldfish, yogurt covered raisins, pretzels, nuts, and more.
- Turkey club sandwiches
For a festive gathering of friends, consider some of these food ideas. You can prepare some in advance or cook them on the spot. Variety is the spice of life.
- Skillet Spinach-Artichoke Dip with Fire-Roasted Bread (bring your portable cooker if you need)
- Raspberry and Lemon Rose Sparkler
- Corn Cobbettes with Basil Butter
- Bourbon Candied Bacon Deviled Eggs
- Honey Lime Berry Salad
- Sriracha Grilled Corn
- Sweet Maple Barbecue Chicken Kabobs
If it is a romantic picnic by the light of the setting sun, consider some of these romantic ideas. It’ll be like a romantic restaurant but under the city sky.
- Bite-sized things on a skewer, like melons, cheeses, ham, and tomatoes
- Muffaletta sandwich cut into slices
- Strawberry Mango Mesclun Salad
- Mendocino Chicken Salad
- Tuna and Apple Crostini
- Vanilla Sponge Cake with Blackberry-Tarragon Jam
- Chocolate Truffle Cookies
When figuring out how to plan a picnic, food preparation, safety, and storage and essential aspects to consider. If you have to travel a distance to get to the park, you don’t want anything to go wrong on the trip. And cleaning up food spills in a car is never a fun picnic event. There is no shortage of information on keeping food safe and using proper containers to prevent spills.
The night before a picnic, prepare any marinades and dishes that do not have to be made fresh. Letting meat marinate overnight enhances the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Make some of the dishes the night before leaves more time for packing and enjoying the picnic.
Pack all the foods into airtight containers or bags. If disposable plastic baggies aren’t your thing, there are reusable food-grade bags that prevent leaking. Packing the foods in containers will help limit spilling accidents and can help prevent spoiling of the food. In today’s world of modern convenience, there are plenty of fantastic glass and plastic containers with snap-on lids.
Consider cutting everything up beforehand, so you’re not spending that time doing it while setting the food out. Preparing some things the day before leaves more time for fun and eases the setup at the park. Cupcake liners are a great way to keep items in place and from being squished together, such as deviled eggs. Cupcake liners are also great for preparing single-serving sizes, or to prevent people from touching all the food.
Consider packing your basket and cooler in reverse. Put all the nonperishable foods on the bottom of a basket, topped by serving items or tableware, topped with the tablecloth or blank. If you have the option, try to get use two coolers, one for the food and one for beverages. Constantly opening the cooler releases the stored cold air. Having a separate cooler for perishable foods helps keep that food cold until you need them.
Common food safety includes washing hands to prevent spreading harmful bacteria. Having hand sanitizer in your picnic kit is an excellent alternative if there is no running water. Keeping cold foods cold also helps prevent bacteria. Other useful tips include:
- Cold foods should be kept at 40o F or colder.
- Fill a cooler with at least 25% ice, along the bottom and sides of the cooler. Place perishables directly on the ice to keep them cold longer.
- A full cooler works better and keeps cold longer.
- Large pieces of ice take longer to melt but can also take up more room.
- Put ice into baggies to keep the water from soaking into everything.
- Keep the cooler and chilled foods in the shade, if possible.
- Place chilled foods in bowls of ice to keep them cold longer.
- Keep mayonnaise-based dishes cold as it can spoil in the heat and make you sick.
- Avoid ice cream-based dishes as they can melt in the sun.
- Hot foods need to be kept at 140oF or hotter and should be eaten within 2 hours of being cooked.
Grilling on Site
When a park has an onsite grill stand, or if you can bring your grill, it makes for some amazing picnic food. From grilled steaks to hamburgers to grilled chicken and fillets of fish, the options are wide open. Marinate chicken and steaks the night before for added flavor. Make the hamburger patties the night before, separating each patty with some wax or parchment paper for easy separation.
Wrap each type of meat separately from each other or in separate airtight containers to prevent cross-contamination. Freeze the meat the night before so they stay colder longer. Freezing the meat is an excellent idea if there is some travel time to get to the picnic destination.
Make sure that you grill the food completely and follow safe grilling tips, like these tips from the US Food & Drug Administration. Having a thermometer helps to identify when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature. Be sure to clean the grill before using it, making sure there are no stray bristles getting in the food. And give your grill plenty of time to heat up for even cooking.
Step up your grilling game from regular burgers and hotdogs. Add some flavor and variety to what’s being served. Here are some fantastic marinade recipes that will have everyone saying you’re a master at grilling:
- Spicy Pork Skewers
- Grilled Crispy-Skinned Salmon with Whole Lemon-Sesame Sauce
- Grilled Garlic-and Black-Pepper Shrimp
- Seven-Spice Grilled Lamb Chops with Parsley Salad
- Grilled Chicken Skewers with Toum (Shish Taouk)
- Grilled Chicken with Banana Peppers
- Sticky-Sweet Grilled Pork Shoulder
- Grilled Veggie Burgers
- Steakhouse Burgers
Plan an Alternative
We’ve all been there. Spent the night before the picnic prepping foods and checking some items off the list. The morning is beautiful and sunny, as we finish preparations to leave. About halfway to the picnic destination, a storm rolls in and rains on our plans. Just in case the weather does a last-minute change, there’s no need to cancel if you have an alternate plan.
Create an indoor picnic! Move furniture around to clear a space on the floor for the picnic blanket. Then start setting out all the foods on the blanket and continue to have fun conversations in the shelter of your home. Pull out some card games or board games after eating for hours of entertainment.
Another idea is to have everyone sit around the coffee table if it’s big enough. The coffee table provides the ability to make a table-like setting while still being cozy. You can throw your tablecloth over the coffee table too to gussie it up.
Create an indoor fort! Use some chairs and sheets or blankets to make a cozy little hideout. Play a game of protecting the fort. This isn’t just a kid’s activity either. Create a romantic setting inside a little fort, or just have fun like a kid would by using your imagination that you’re caught up on the stormy seas.
Create an indoor obstacle course using pillows, chairs, and hula-hoops. Avoid the floor (it’s lava!) by walking from chair to chair or jump in and out of a hula-hoop several times. Walk a balance board (without worrying about falling very far)! Try to balance a beanbag or book on your head while you walk from one point to another. There are no limits to imagination!
If the storm isn’t too bad, like just a light rain, look to see if the park has a gazebo. Or possibly find another park that does. You’ll be under shelter while eating food, and still enjoying the outdoors. The sound of the rain can also make for a romantic meal setting.
You can also consider postponing the picnic entirely and eating at a restaurant. Once the dining is done, visit a museum or an indoor botanical garden. If your city has an IMAX theater, check out the listings to see what’s playing. Take the kids to a family fun center where they can expend their energy. Visit a themed escape room to see if your group has what it takes to solve the riddles.
Now that you have made your list and you’ve checked it twice, the fun is about to begin. From games to enjoying nature, every picnic can be turned into an event to remember. If nature is your scene, plan a picnic location at the base of hiking trails. It’ll help burn off some of the calories you’ve consumed, and you never know what you might see on the trails.
From playing sports to just sitting back and people watching, there is always something to do for a fun-filled picnic day. Bring some water balloons or squirt guns. Or just bring some popular grass games like a ring toss or bean bag throw.
Keep children entertained by creating a scavenger hunt game. From an easy hunt of generalized items to finding specific birds, trees, and flowers. Create the lists the night before. Here are some scavenger ideas:
- Running water
- Cloud shapes
Bring some travel easy board games such as:
- Monopoly (as long as there’s no wind to blow the money away)
- Cards Against Humanity (for the adults!)
- Even Twister can create hours of fun in the park
For more active styles, try some sports-themed fun:
- Hide & Seek
When figuring out how to plan a picnic, first figure out what kind of a picnic it is that you want. From a romantic date to a family fun event, there is something for everyone. Location is always vital when deciding where to go. From a small, cozy park to a large park filled with playground equipment, every city has options to choose from.
Planning around weather can be tricky as some storms can rise up seemingly out of nowhere. If you live where spring storms are fierce, be sure to keep an eye on weather forecasts. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cancel entirely. There are always fantastic options.
Preparing foods ahead of time will cut back on day-of preparations and provide time to pick up last minute items you may need. Be sure to keep in mind food safety when foods sit out in the sun. And having special containers can prevent messy spills while traveling to the park.
Every outing should have some fun-filled activities that are fit for all ages. If it’s a group of friends or a family gathering, adding some games to the mix can generate laughs and create lasting memories.
If the weather rains on your parade and causes you to cancel the picnic, there is no need to panic (or cry). Try one of the alternatives mentioned, like an indoor picnic with a blanket fort and obstacle course. If it’s a matter of getting out of the house altogether, there are places to go that can provide shelter from the storm.
Remember that you are having a picnic to also have a good time. Don’t sweat the small stuff but always be prepared.