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My guide for how to plan a perfect picnic has arrived just in time to help you plan a next-level (yet no-sweat) al fresco feast. With my best picnic recipes and picnic tips for a stress-free fete in your entertaining arsenal, you’ll be all set to send the invitations and join in the fun.
Just like fall isn’t official until I’ve hosted a tailgate party, summer isn’t really summer without a picnic party! But let’s be real: It can feel a bit daunting to not only find a day that works with all of your guest lists’ calendars (oh yes, and Mother Nature), but also plan the menu, pack and transport it all, keep the kids entertained, and more.
With all that in mind, I’ve created the ultimate guide for how to plan a picnic. Complete with make-ahead picnic menu ideas and all of the picnic logistics and gear you need, this step-by-step picnic guide ensures that you can have just as much fun as your guests.
Table of Contents
Planning a Picnic
Step 1: Choose a venue.
Allow the amenities, the view, the time of year and the potential guests to be your guide here. If your picnic attendees are sensitive to the heat, consider somewhere that’s shady.
Are kids coming? Handy restrooms will be ideal, and if seniors or others with limited mobility might be in attendance, consider a spot that’s close to available parking and easily accessible on a flat surface. If pets are invited to the party, be sure to research local rules and regulations about leashing and other safety details.
I love hosting a picnic at a local park, but if you adore and have access to something near the water, is a blast to get to by bike or even have a beautiful backyard, those are all excellent options, too!
Step 2: Pick a day and time (plus a rain date).
Mother Nature is about as predictable as a toddler’s nap schedule. (Just me? 🤣) So plan your first choice of date, then pick an alternate in the event of rain or extreme temperatures. Select the time of day (brunch, lunch, dinner, dessert) based on your venue and guest availability.
Step 3: Send out invitations.
Once you have your dates and times set, you can invite your crew. I prefer to send a calendar invitation via email; this allows for easy tracking of “yes” responses to assist with scale for the menu. A text, phone call, or in-person invitation also works, of course. Just be sure to confirm their availability and pass along any necessary details (say, if this is a potluck, what time they should arrive, etc.).
If you’re feeling creative, give picnic guests a “treasure map” and make the destination for the meal a scavenger hunt. (Be sure they have your phone number to text or call if they get lost, of course!) Or simply pop the location in the calendar invite.
Step 4: Select the menu.
You’ll find a handful of my best picnic recipes rounded up below! As you’ll see, these are selected with transportability in mind.
Ideally, picnic recipes should be:
- Easy to make in advance
- Possible to eat with a fork, spoon, or hands rather than requiring a knife
- Best served at room temperature
- Free of elements that might make other ingredients too soggy
- Okay without freezing or super-cold refrigeration for a couple hours
(Now is a great time to brush up on the USDA’s tips for summer food safety.)
Step 5: Gear up.
Yes, a picnic basket is very aptly named. But you don’t need a basket to make this soiree special. A plastic bin, backpack, or a few reusable grocery bags can get the job done, especially if you have a cooler/insulated cooler bag or two. Speaking of which, I recommend using two: One for foods and one for drinks.
As you pack your cooler(s) of choice, shoot for about 25% ice and 75% food or drink. Transfer items directly from the fridge to the cooler to keep them as cold as possible, and fill it to the brim if you can; a full cooler will stay icier longer than a partially-empty one. Keep in mind that large pieces of ice melt slower than small ones, and frozen water bottles can play double duty as a chiller and a drink later on.
Beyond a basket and a couple coolers, here are my pieces of go-to picnic gear (Culinary Hill main earn money if you buy thru these links):
- Blankets (plus stakes or something to weigh it down if there aren’t benches handy)
- Enamel or bamboo tableware and silverware
- Bug spray
- Condiment packets (I save these from fast-food restaurants)
- Salt and pepper shakers or packets
- Serving utensils
- Any desired decor
- Clean-up items (see “Step 8” for more)
- Umbrellas, just in case
Step 6: Game on.
A bluetooth speaker is a must to get the party started, in my opinion! Beyond that, consider perking up your picnic by packing one or several of these entertainment options (Culinary Hill main earn money if you buy thru these links):
- Adult and/or kids coloring books with colored pencils
- Cards and/or board games
- Puzzle books with pens
- Croquet set
- Bocce ball set
- A ball to play catch
Step 7: Make a list, then check it twice.
Unless you have a magical memory, you’ll need to make a list of everything you aim to bring to feed, entertain, serve and clean up after your guests. Create this list, check it over with this guide and your recipes (prepare them according to the make-ahead times explained in my picnic recipes below), then you’re all ready to pack for your picnic.
Load up your vessels and vehicle in reverse order of when you’ll need the items; non-perishable foods should go first, then serving tools and tableware, and lastly the tablecloth and blanket.
Step 8: Tidy up.
If your picnic venue isn’t at your home or near an area with trash cans, be sure to pack bags to transport the trash separately from the dirty dishes and silverware.
Stock up on hand sanitizer as well as disinfecting wipes (for surfaces and for hands) before your picnic, especially if your location doesn’t have easy access to a sink with soap and water.
Creamy chicken salad on a buttery, flaky croissant is what picnic dreams are made of! Try classic Chicken Salad with crunchy celery and onions or Curried Chicken Salad with grapes and plenty of curry powder. You can’t go wrong with either!
This easy pasta salad is loaded with lots of fresh vegetables and fresh, flavorful salad dressing studded with seeds. I love the long, twirling spaghetti noodles here, but you can choose any pasta you prefer.
This easy Fruit Salad recipe has piles of colorful fresh fruit and a sweet and sunny dressing made with lemons, orange juice, and honey. Even the kids will love it!
Any cookie will do, really, but I love a classic Chocolate Chip Cookie for a picnic. It’s familiar and comforting, no surprises, just deliciousness and happy memories.
If your picnic goals include relaxing and unwinding, a glass of crisp White Sangria might be just the thing for you. It’s easy to mix up a batch and bring it along in a bottle or thermos, then garnish with fresh fruit at serving time. (Did you accidentally spoon some fruit salad into your sangria? I saw nothing/sounds like a great idea.)
Meggan Hill is the Executive Chef and CEO of Culinary Hill, a popular digital publication in the food space. She loves to combine her Midwestern food memories with her culinary school education to create her own delicious take on modern family fare. Millions of readers visit Culinary Hill each month for meticulously-tested recipes as well as skills and tricks for ingredient prep, cooking ahead, menu planning, and entertaining. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the iCUE Culinary Arts program at College of the Canyons.