As the weather warms up and holiday weekends loom, many of us start thinking about enjoying our meals outdoors. But a 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.

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

The carriers

It can be anything from a classic picnic basket to a sturdy, flat-bottomed bag to a metal or plastic bin or box. It should, however, include some sort of cooler.

The food

Choose simple dishes that require no fussing over at the picnic. Steer clear of fragile foods, and take items that won’t get soggy, are delicious at room temperature, can stand up to some time in the sun, and can be eaten with your hands or just a fork — it’s hard to cut things on a paper plate balanced on your lap.

Usually, picnics don’t 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 afternoon, you may want to put out some nibbley things to start. Cheese plus bread or crackers is always welcome, supplemented by olives, cornichons, nuts, dried fruit, and condiments like fig jam or chutney. If you make a crostini topping or two, 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. There are lots of interesting salsas to make or buy to pair with chips.


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 days ahead of time).

Sandwiches are always good, but pack them tightly 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. Include at least one vegetarian and one gluten-free option if you think those might be needed.

Avoid desserts that need to be cut and plated, like pies and cakes. Go with pre-cut durable sweets like brownies, bar cookies and drop cookies.

Grapes, cherries, cut melon and strawberries are good, packable fruit offerings.

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

Disposable or reusable?

We are all trying to be greener. And for a smaller group, at least, reusables are often more attractive and eco-friendly. Always bring extra bags for recycling and compost.


Make that list!

Here is a sample checklist, to prevent those “did anyone pack the napkins?” moments:

  • 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 (eating and serving)
  • Napkins
  • Paper towels (and maybe wet wipes)
  • Dishtowels (these can be used to anchor dishes in transport, and also for cleanup)
  • Drinks (including plenty of water)
  • Bottle opener and/or corkscrew
  • Cutting board (also useful as a level serving surface, perfect for drinks)
  • Sharp knife
  • Salt, pepper, condiments (leftover ketchup, mustard or mayo packets from take-out can be put to use!)
  • Suncreen and insect repellent
  • Hats
  • Garbage/recycling bags
  • Flashlight
  • Games and activities: Frisbees, balls, bubbles, water guns, etc.
  • Extra containers or sealable bags for leftovers, utensils, etc.

Packing your picnic

Put the heaviest, sturdiest items on the bottom of your container, and the lighter, more delicate items on top.

Have your picnic blanket accessible — it’s the first thing you’ll want to unpack.

Chill drinks and perishable foods before you pack them.

And finally, of course, leave the picnic site the way you found it. Shake those last few crumbs off the blanket, but otherwise nobody need know you were there.

Katie Workman has written two cookbooks focused on easy, family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at She can be reached at