I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for picnic season to get here. I love outdoor meals, especially when they are combined with fun activities like concerts, days at the beach, softball games and being on the water. For most of the country this has been an extraordinary winter, lingering far longer than average. But the sun is out now and it is time to play!
Picnicking is an art. How do we figure out what to bring, keep it cold until ready to grill and have foods that everyone loves without bringing the entire kitchen? The key is to keep it simple. Don’t bring too many different dishes; just plenty of the foods your family loves. The idea is to have a relaxed day.
To make it even easier on yourself, choose foods that can be made a day or two in advance so you only have to pack up the containers you’ve already filled and can be on the road quickly. Here in California we need to get out early to beat most of the weekend and holiday traffic.
Make salads and desserts ahead
Many salads and slaws are actually better when made ahead and given time for the flavors to blend. Pasta salad is always popular and you can pack it with veggies to sneak something healthy past your kids. If you are bring coleslaw, drain it really well before packing into smaller containers. This will lessen the chances of it leaking onto the other foods.
While we’re talking about containers leaking, I always double bag anything that has liquid in it and put it in the bottom of the cooler or basket. If something leaks, it will only affect the items beneath it. The extra bags can also be used to collect trash at the end of the day.
Keep desserts simple – everyone loves cookies. They are easy to make (or buy) and simple to transport. A cold watermelon on hot days is refreshing and it is always fun to see who can spit the seeds the farthest. Roasted marshmallows never go out of style – just remember to bring long skewers to keep little hands away from the heat of the grill.
Choose foods that can be served at room temperature and are easy to eat
The less you have to worry about keeping foods cool, the better. Don’t choose foods that require cutting if you can avoid it. Anything you can eat with your fingers is the easiest to plan for.
Pre-form hamburgers and stack with parchment between each one.
If you are going to be grilling burgers, seasoning and forming them ahead makes it really easy to slap them on the grill and keeps your hands cleaner. The parchment squares between each one makes them super easy to separate. And don’t forget to press a dimple in the center of each patty so they won’t bulge as they cook.
Assemble cooking tools and double check to be sure you have everything you will need.
I inevitably forget something so I make lots of lists and check things off as I pack them. Tongs and spatulas will handle just about any foods you will be grilling, but if you need a special tool or implement set it out ahead of time so it makes it into the basket. Pack condiments into smaller containers to have more room for sodas, water and wine.
Bring a portable grill so you don’t have to fight for the limited public grills.
I love Char-Broil’s Grill2Go with TRU-Infrared™ technology for tailgating and picnics. It is small but packs a wallop of power. You can have the best tasting BBQ foods with no worries about bringing charcoal or lighter fluid. One small propane tank will cook everything you need and still have enough left to roast marshmallows. But be prepared (yes, I was a Girl Scout), bring a second mini tank just in case you used more than you realized the last time you fired up the grill.
Don’t forget utensils, plastic glasses, napkins, wet wipes and the wine opener.
Are you sensing a theme here? Yep, this California girl loves her wine. If you want to pair your wines to the foods you are serving, here are some suggestions: Try a Pinot Gris or Oregon Pinot Noir for veggies and seafood, an old-vine Zinfandel for sausages and burgers, a nice big Cab for brisket and a Syrah/Shiraz with pulled pork or ribs. Bottom line – whatever you like to drink is the wine you should be drinking.
The most important thing to remember about picnics is to have fun so invite your best friends, cook up fantastic foods, crank up the music and have a blast.
Picnic Basket Top 10 Checklist:
- Ice packs and extra ice for drinks and to keep cool on hot days. Freeze bottles of water in advance – they will keep your foods cool and be ready to drink as they thaw.
- Meats/veggies for grilling (double bag and pack at the bottom of the basket to avoid cross-contamination if they leak). Pack meats between layers of ice packs. And don’t forget the buns if you are serving hot dogs, sausages, or burgers.
- Drinks – something for everyone and don’t forget a bottle or three of wine.
- Side salads, chips, snacks (baggies of veggie sticks are always easy), fruit and serving spoons.
- Plastic glasses, forks and spoons plus knives and a cutting board for carving meats if needed.
- Condiments and plastic knives for spreading them on buns/breads.
- A blanket or cloth to spread out on the ground or picnic table; if it has been raining recently bring a plastic tarp to put down first so the blanket doesn’t get wet.
- Napkins, paper towels, wet wipes (or damp washcloths in plastic bags to clean up sticky hands and faces).
- Sunscreen and bug spray.
- Music to set the mood.