How to Pack a Perfect Picnic
Treat yourself to some fresh air, fully loaded sandwiches, and cold lemonade. We’ve got 21 of the best picnic foods to choose from.
As the weather turns gorgeous, I’m dreaming of picnics. In the park and at the beach, of course — but even if my family and I only make it as far as our apartment building's picnic tables, dining al fresco will put me in a vacation mood. The air will be fresh, the sky will be blue, and the sandwiches and salads will never taste better.
Ready to set out your own picnic blanket?
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How to pack a tidy picnic basket
Even if you don’t mind noshing on a bite of pastrami followed by a bite of brownie, you might prefer that your picnic foods keep to themselves before serving.
I know I used the word “basket” just now, but I prefer a hard-sided cooler. It protects the food nicely and gives you a table-like surface (or a seat).
Pack everything in stiff, resealable containers to avoid spills or crushing. Even inside a hard-sided cooler, accidents happen.
If possible, carry drinks in a separate cooler or tote to avoid smushing more delicate items.
Food safety tips for picnics
Start by packing foods cold from the fridge to your basket or cooler.
To keep food cold for your picnic, use plenty of ice packs, or fill water bottles about two-thirds full and pop them in the freezer a day ahead. They’ll keep your food cold and as they melt, you’ll have refreshing ice water.
Skip mayo-heavy salads such as potato salad, which can spoil more quickly in the sun. Go with hardy bean, grain, or pasta salads with vinegar-based dressings.
For food safety reasons, none of your perishables should be out of the cooler for more than two hours.
The best foods for picnics
What are good picnic foods? A few thoughtful choices will mean your picnic spread won't crumble or spill into an untidy mess on the blanket.
For sandwiches, choose a sturdy bread and assemble them strategically. Put the softer stuff, like tomatoes and condiments, in between the other fixings to keep them from making the bread soggy.
For dessert, choose finger food options that are pre-portioned and don’t require silverware to eat, like cookies, hand pies, and bars.
Since you can’t count on those frozen water bottles for drinking for the first few hours, you’ll want to pack additional drinks such as lemonade or iced tea. Consider packing a refillable cup with a lid for each person (or bring a plastic jug and individual cups).
Handy items to pack for a picnic
And don’t forget to pack these items. Some may not be necessities, but your picnic will feel more manageable with them.
A big picnic blanket or two, of course. Ideally ones you won’t fret about if something spills on them.
Reusable plates, such as melamine, unbreakable cups, and real silverware (or disposable plates and silverware). Melamine plates weigh so little you won’t mind carrying them. And tuck in some serving spoons if you’re bringing salads.
A roll of paper towels, or cloth napkins or bandanas to make things special. Paper napkins blow away too easily, and paper towels or cloth napkins can serve as impromptu plates for nibbles and desserts.
Wet wipes, or damp washcloths sealed in a zip-top bag. This one applies if you’re not going to have running water nearby. Sticky hands for hours? No thanks.
A small knife wrapped in cardboard for safety, and a small cutting board. (Or wrap the knife in a thick kitchen towel and secure it with a rubber band.) Even if you think you won’t need it, I guarantee something’s going to need cutting.
Trash bags! Before you leave, you’re going to clean up after yourselves, right?
Sunscreen. Nothing ruins a fun picnic as thoroughly as a nasty sunburn.
Bug spray. I’m one of those people mosquitoes just find. If I’m spending hours outside, I’m bringing DEET.
5 primo picnic sandwiches
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a picnic that didn’t involve something on bread. These options are all created with picnicking in mind.
Pressed sandwiches work beautifully at picnics — you assemble one large sandwich in a baguette the day before, wrap tightly, and refrigerate overnight with a heavy weight on top to make everything meld together. The next day you simply unwrap, cut into individual portions, and pack. This version demonstrates the concept beautifully, filling a large ciabatta with Italian deli meats, fresh mozz, roasted peppers, and arugula.
Here’s another way to take your pressed sandwich: A hollowed-out loaf of semolina bread gets stuffed with rotisserie chicken, bacon, cheddar, red onion, and spinach. A smear of raspberry jam-flavored honey mustard takes it over the top.
A real New Orleans muffuletta is a giant sandwich that features cured meats, cheese, and a tangy olive salad. This vegetarian version stars grilled eggplant, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, and regular or vegan mozzarella, along with prepared olive tapenade.
Maybe you're thinking simple picnic foods. You know what a Caprese salad is, right? Tomatoes, fresh mozz, and basil make an easy filling for a vegetarian picnic sandwich. Pesto mayonnaise (literally just mayo mixed with store-bought pesto), fresh basil leaves, and baby spinach make them just a little more special.
Tons of fresh, crisp vegetables meet up with a creamy, zingy dressing made with ginger, lemon, and mustard for our third vegetarian sandwich. It all gets sprinkled with toasted sunflower seeds, then rolled tightly inside a wrap.
6 can’t-miss picnic salads
Whether you’re serving one as a healthy side for sandwiches or a replacement for them altogether, these gorgeous salads will be welcome at any warm-weather outing. The key to a good picnic salad: It has to use sturdy enough ingredients that it won’t go soggy any time soon.
You’ll be impressed that just a handful of ingredients can make something so delightful. All you need is rice-shaped pasta, ripe tomatoes, plenty of fresh herbs, and bocconcini (mini-mozzarella balls), to toss with a simple balsamic vinaigrette.
Who wants boring old three-bean salad when you can wake things up? For this recipe you'll drizzle a taco-lime vinaigrette in the bottom of a large bowl, then toss in black beans, kidney beans, corn, tomato, green onion, and avocado, with bell pepper for crunch. Garnish with (obligatory) fresh cilantro.
Beans and pasta pretty much sustain me these days. This salad dresses them up prettily with grape tomatoes, celery, red onion, and parsley in a tangy apple cider vinaigrette. Bonus: You can make it a full day ahead and go straight from fridge to cooler on picnic day.
Creamy potato salad feels too heavy for picnicking to me. But dress those tender spuds with a shower of fresh herbs (almost any kind will do), a bit of red onion for bite, and a simple white wine vinegar dressing, and I can’t resist.
Fluffy, protein-packed quinoa mixes with tons of fresh cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, fresh cilantro, and mint in this stunning salad. The light and lemony dressing makes you think you could be sitting on a Mediterranean island.
Chicken salad with feta and chickpeas is always a crowd-pleaser. Offer a baguette on the side, and you've got yourself some deconstructed chicken salad sandwiches.
5 tempting picnic desserts
Admit it, you don’t want to attend a picnic with no sweets, either. Any of these picnic basket ideas would make me mighty happy.
Doesn’t that combination of words sound intriguing? Pretzel bottom. Snickers. Blondie. I’m all about the salty-sweet, and if you add chopped-up bits of everyone’s favorite candy bar? Get outta my way.
These adorable treats are baked in a muffin tray, so they’re pre-portioned and portable. The batter is a simple yellow cake scented with nutmeg and lemon zest, and the chunk of peach you place on top of each cake sinks in just enough for its juices to add a little more oomph.
Nobody says no to a perfect classic brownie. This recipe uses both cocoa and bittersweet chocolate chips to lend chocolatey flavor, and do they ever. Fudgy, dark, and chewy, these are the brownies you’ve been searching for your whole life.
Using frozen empanada dough and prepared cherry pie filling makes these the easiest pies you’ll ever bake. Of course, you can use any pie filling you like — the concept remains the same, and the hand pies remain picnic-perfect.
Whether your picnic includes a bunch of kids or just kids-at-heart, these colorful, four-ingredient goodies will probably be the first thing to get devoured. And just think: They only take 10 minutes of your time.
5 more favorite picnic recipes
Sandwiches, salads, and desserts are a must at any summer picnic, but we’re not done with our roundup of best picnic food ideas. These additional side dishes, lemonade, and fried chicken aren’t required, but they’ll be more than welcome. And don't forget easy, no-recipe picnic food ideas like watermelon chunks, blueberries, a chunk of salami or hard chorizo, and a container of hummus with some pita bread.
Does your perfect picnic include a few of these guys? I have no idea why deviled eggs became a thing a few years ago, but I’m so glad they did. This version keeps it simple with mayo, mustard, white vinegar, and paprika, but you could add a spoonful of pickle relish (dill or sweet) if you're a fan.
Is a crudités arrangement standard picnic fare? Maybe not, but when the dip is this simple, I say go for it. To make it, you whir a can of cannellini beans in a food processor with nothing but olive oil, lemon juice and zest, garlic, and thyme. Pack that up along with some dippable cut vegetables like carrots, radishes, and red pepper strips, and you’ve got a lovely picnic appetizer.
In some quarters, it’s not a picnic without cold fried chicken. Making it kicks up a bit of a fuss — you’re coating and frying chicken, after all — but it’s so worth it. Cook this buttermilk-tangy recipe the day before the picnic, to give it time to cool off before packing so you preserve the crispy, crunchy coating.
I know, I said no picnic is complete without a decadent treat at the end. But sometimes you just want a refreshing fruit salad. Fresh mint and just a touch of sugar take this a step beyond the usual.
It’s perfectly acceptable to drink nothing but water at a picnic. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a big thermos of something exciting and fruity, like this combo of pureed strawberries and pineapple, lemon juice, and a bit of sugar?
More foods to enjoy outdoors
Whether you're kicking back at home with a bbq or heading out to the park or beach, you'll want to check out these next articles for additional ideas.