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.

A setup for a picnic in a park with sangria and fruit salad.

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
  1. Planning a Picnic
  2. Chicken Salad Sandwiches
  3. California Pasta Salad
  4. Fruit Salad
  5. Chocolate Chip Cookies
  6. White Sangria

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!

A setup for a picnic in a park with sangria and fruit salad.

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.)

A set up of a picnic foods in a park.

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)
  • Tablecloth
  • Enamel or bamboo tableware and silverware
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • 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
  • Magazines
  • Puzzle books with pens
  • Kites
  • Bubbles
  • Frisbees
  • 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.


Chicken Salad Sandwiches

A chicken salad sandwich and potato chips on a paper plate.

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!

Chicken Salad
Start with leftover chicken and this Chicken Salad recipe takes just 5 minutes to toss together. Ideal for meal prep or a quick make-ahead lunch idea, this Chicken Salad can be dressed up with your favorite mix-ins and herbs.
VIEW RECIPE
Chicken salad on a croissant next to chips and a pickle spear.

More great picnic mains

Curried Chicken Salad
This easy Curried Chicken Salad makes the perfect sandwich, wrap, or low-carb lunch on a big bed of greens. This delicious, flavorful recipe uses almonds and fresh grapes, for just the right balance of crunch and sweetness.
VIEW RECIPE
Curried chicken salad on slices of toast on a white platter.

California Pasta Salad

California pasta salad in a white bowl.

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.

California Pasta Salad
This delicious and colorful California Pasta Salad is always a hit as part of a party menu. Make this easy pasta salad recipe up to a day ahead if you like; the flavors only get better as it marinates.
VIEW RECIPE
A bowl with California pasta salad.

More super picnic sides

Easy Cold Pasta Salad
This easy Cold Pasta Salad has broccoli, bell peppers, zesty Italian dressing and Parmesan cheese. It's simple and always a favorite!
VIEW RECIPE
Easy cold pasta salad in a wooden bowl with a serving fork and spoon.

Fruit Salad

A set up of a picnic foods in a park.

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!

Fruit Salad
Freshen up your menu with an easy, make-ahead Fruit Salad that's tossed in a zippy honey and citrus dressing. Toss it together, then allow this crowd-pleasing Fruit Salad to chill for an hour (or more) for a simple and healthy side dish recipe.
VIEW RECIPE
Fruit salad in a small white bowl.

More fruity side dishes

Kale Salad
You're one bite away from craving this delicious, colorful Kale Salad. With a fresh strawberry vinaigrette and a plethora of complimentary toppings, it's an ode to the spectacular cuisine of California.
VIEW RECIPE
A white bowl filled with kale salad.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

A set up of a picnic foods in a park.

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.

Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies
Your new favorite chewy, soft chocolate chip cookies. Under-bake them slightly so they come out with crispy edges and soft centers. Plus all the info you need to freeze cookie dough for later.
VIEW RECIPE
Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies on a cooling rack
Scotcheroos
If you like Rice Krispie treats, then you’ll go head over heels for no-bake Scotcheroos, one of the most decadent peanut butter and chocolate desserts you’ll ever have. They’re ready in minutes and devoured in seconds.
VIEW RECIPE
Scotcheroos on a cooling rack.

White Sangria

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.)

White Sangria
Get the party started with this classic White Sangria. A pitcher of white wine sangria is the ultimate refreshing party drink recipe on a warm spring or summer day.
VIEW RECIPE
Two glasses of white sangria.

More picnic drink picks

8 Infused Water Recipes
Stay hydrated with these easy infused water recipes. If you find plain ol' H2O to be boring, consider making a pitcher of infused water that scores a hint of flavor from fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
VIEW RECIPE
Glasses of water infused with fruit, vegetables, and fresh herbs.

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Meggan Hill

I’m the Executive Chef and head of the Culinary Hill Test Kitchen. Every recipe is developed, tested, and approved just for you.

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