Picnic dinners are the one thing I’m keeping from last year

The casual outdoor meal tradition one writer's family came to discover — and love

Published June 15, 2021 11:59AM (EDT)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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There's a lot from the last year that I am ready to toss to the wayside: Zoom birthday parties? No thanks. Remote learning? Never again — please! My house slippers? I'm planning a bonfire. One of the few things I'm keeping? Picnic dinners. While I am delighted to be patronizing our favourite taco spot and dosa shop again, I'm definitely not giving up the casual outdoor meal tradition my family came to discover — and love.

Last spring, when the weather turned warm enough to eat outside (or to be honest, while it was still a tad too cool), my husband, my son, and I started packing up meals to eat outdoors. It was a way to escape the confines of our relatively small home and also a necessity on days when we'd planned a hike or beach trip and we couldn't pop into a restaurant. Al fresco lunches had always been a part of our routine — and frankly, expected — but picnic dinners were new — and they were a revelation.

I quickly discovered that our picnic dinners had the power to change the tone of the whole week. In this time when weekdays bleed together, a meal taken outdoors, away from home, and at dusk, became a delightful demarcation between the work day and the family part of the day. And when we picnicked on a Sunday night, the meal seemed to stretch the weekend a little longer.

A picnic dinner is also a punctuation mark in the week or the month. The novelty of picnicking creates a memory. If I think back on last summer, those dinners stand out as some of the happiest memories in my mind (and in my son's mind, too).

A picnic dinner is also a surefire way to put everyone in a good mood. Being outside seems to relax my family. Under an open sky it feels like the pace slows down. My son thinks the experience is a treat and I'm off the hook for preparing another proper meal, setting the table, and tidying up. As a bonus, I find I'm way less likely to crack open my laptop or pick up my phone for mindless scrolling if we've eaten outside.

Sometimes our dinner picnics took place at the park closest to our home, where we might run into a neighbor and sneak in an extra session on the playground. Other times, we piled into our car and headed further afield, seeking out a waterfront location. Those more far-flung spots were worth the hike, but a blanket spread out in the local park was enough to create the change-from-our-usual-routine magic.

On a practical note: Picnic dinners also turned out to be a great way to clean out the fridge. Sometimes our outdoor meals are containers of leftovers plus some cut-up fruits and veggies, nuts, and hard-boiled eggs. If I did make something special, it was always the kind of dish that tastes even better at room temperature, like beans, pasta, or grain salads. I pack it all up in a cooler bag and a big canvas tote and everyone can pick and choose what they want once we're at our spot. When we get home, everything goes straight into the dishwasher, so clean-up is minimal. When we really weren't in the mood to cook or clean, takeaway slices of pizza were our "picnic."

If you want to try your own family dinner outdoors, know that the beauty of a picnic is in its casualness: My family's picnics are not Instagrammable experiences. They're thrown-together meals with mismatched food containers and an old blanket that I don't mind spilling on. Of course, you can perfect your packable menu and invest in a cute basket, but for me, these are really more about getting outside and making a memory than any styling or anything we're eating.

So as the world opens up this summer, don't be surprised if you see my family eating our dinner in the park or the Open Streets instead of a restaurant. But this time, we're likely to be sharing it with friends. Because while I am clinging to the slowed-down pace of stay-at-home life, I'm also gleeful to share it with all the friends we've missed so much.

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By Laura Fenton

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