Picnic Like a Pro: A Guide to Outdoor Dining
The concept of a picnic goes back to at least the 17th century, when it was viewed as a meal to which all diners contributed a dish or drink. There are also historical references to picnics connected to hunting expeditions with an outdoor meal providing a break from the hunt. As public parks provided more greenspace in the early 20th century, heading outside for a picnic became de rigueur as the seasons permitted.
What is it about dining outdoors that seems to stir one’s appetite and makes even the most ordinary meals taste better? Picnicking is not much more hassle -- it can be easier than making dinner at home -- and the reward is a mini-adventure that shakes up your mealtime routine. Whether you are meeting friends in the park, dining al fresco in your own backyard or headed for a romantic evening on the beach, here are some ideas to make your next outdoor dining adventure picture perfect.
FINDING THE PERFECT LOCATION
Picnics are a great way to explore new parks around the area, to venture beyond our neighborhoods and discover locations that are not on your usual route. Some options include scenic spots near the ocean such as Big and Little Talbot Islands, Washington Oaks and Fort Matanzas. Want to head over towards the St. Johns River? Check out Walter Jones Historical Park in Mandarin or Alpine Grove in Switzerland.
The area’s myriad urban parks also offer natural settings that allow an escape from routine while staying closer to home. Keep in mind this practical tip, especially if you seek off the beaten path destinations: at some point there will be a need for bathroom facilities. Best to scout those early.
BUGGED BY BUGS?
We like being one with nature, but sometimes sharing space with bugs makes our skin crawl (and itch). Keep insects at bay with citronella candles and perhaps a natural bug-repellent spray. Small bundles of herbs such as lavender, rosemary and mint can also help keep bugs at arm’s length and double as decorations for the table.
We recommend keeping food in containers with lids or bringing a few spare napkins to place over food while you’re kicking the ball around or going for a swim. Use paper muffin cups to cover drinks. Place them upside down over the top of your drink, secure with a rubber band and poke a straw through the top.
SETTING THE TABLE
Upon arrival task someone in your party with the job of putting together a centerpiece of found and foraged items in the near vicinity. Natural decor on the table adds a memorable and environmentally friendly touch.
Also, while setting up picnics on an old blanket with paper plates is easy, here’s a tip to upgrade your outdoor spread. Shop at thrift and secondhand stores to find plates and cups that can be used outdoors without concern about damage or loss. A secondhand tablecloth and napkins help elevate the experience, plus it’s better for the environment, and if something breaks it’s no big deal.
WHAT’S IN YOUR PICNIC BASKET?
Don’t let the process of getting to the picnic ruin the picnic itself. Avoid last minute scrambling by designating a tote or basket specifically for picnics -- to keep all your dry supplies stocked in the bag for your next adventure -- always at the ready. This can include: plates, cutlery, napkins, glasses, wet wipes, tablecloth and blanket, bug repellant, extra ziploc baggies, extra garbage bags, matches, tin foil, citronella candle (and whatever else) ---- so all you have to do is add food plus drink and go.
Look for a carry-all that holds all the essentials, and consolidate as much as possible by packing multi-purpose items to cut down on weight. A small cutting board can act as a serving tray and plate in addition to being a useful place to cut food.
The most important ingredient for any picnic is the desire to experience a meal in a different atmosphere, at a location outside of your routine. Throw in some good company and good eats, and what could be better? Don’t worry if a little sand or some bugs get into your food. It’s all part of the al fresco fun.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU?
You’ve got the location, the flatware, the bug spray—what’s missing? The food! Portability is key, and during the summer months obviously you need to plan your menu around food that holds up in heat. Here are some menu ideas for your picnic:
- Roasted vegetables last well when drizzled with oil.
- Experiment with cabbage — the crunchy cruciferous champion holds up much better than lettuce in the heat of summer.
- Fruit, either whole or cut up ahead of time, works well for dessert.
- Baked goods such as muffins make for easy hand-held desserts.
- Mix salads on site, so the dressing doesn’t make things soggy.
- Pack salads (pasta and other) in ziploc bags that you can clean and reuse. They don’t take up as much room in a basket as containers.
And don’t forget the beverages!
- Chilled lemonade, herbal teas and cucumber water are all good options to quench your thirst.
- To keep drinks cold longer, fill a container such as a mason jar halfway with your beverage of choice and stick in the freezer overnight. Before leaving for the picnic, fill the container the rest of the way with the same beverage. That way, you have ice and a drink all in one handy container.
- For romantic picnics, shatterproof wine glasses provide a more upscale touch to your meal.