Most picnics are awful. Yours doesn't have to be, thanks to these helpful tips

Goodbye, tepid soda and questionable mayo-packed salads. Hello, canned cocktails and cute condiments

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 6, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Young woman lying on picnic blanket (Getty Images/Loop Delay)
Young woman lying on picnic blanket (Getty Images/Loop Delay)

In the summertime, we're confronted with a certain, inescapable reality. Most picnics are not very good. In fact, most picnics are actively bad — uncomfortable afternoons of questionable mayonnaise-packed salads and tepid soda.

As the cold, dark winter months drag out, we forget this unspoken truth, only to emerge alongside the sun, convinced this is the year that things will be different. 

I'm here to say things can be different. 

This summer, with a little pre-planning and some light rethinking about tradition, you can finally master the art of the picnic. Here are five helpful tips to get you there:

Think about what tastes good at room temperature 

If there's a universal truth about picnics, it's what follows. Nothing keeps truly cold, especially when served outdoors in the summer. You may wonder, "What about ice cream cones? Those keep pretty cold." But ice cream cones — as well as other frozen treats peddled from carts and trucks — are meant to be eaten with a certain level of expediency. The vibe of a picnic, meanwhile, is aimless luxuriating. 

After schlepping all the components of a good picnic (which isn't as expansive as you'd think, see below) from my home to a plot of grass outside my home, I'm not going to rush the experience. I'm packing a multi-hour playlist and low-stress, picnic-approved games, such as cards or ring toss.

To cement the plan of being in one spot for a few hours, an edible may also wind up in my picnic tote. Ideally, I like to enjoy snacking on and off over the course of the afternoon. 

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when planning a picnic menu is asking, "What would taste good cold?" First, consider what holds up at room temperature. Some foods that appear to be winners — such as hoagies topped with shredded iceberg and mayo or pre-cut fruit salad — begin to wilt or get a little spongy after sitting in the sun, even if on ice, after a few hours. 

Instead, consider items such as sturdy sandwiches built on crusty bread; oil-topped pasta and grain salads packed with punchy ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes and olives; and spicy sweet potato dip or hummus

Keep it simple (well, simple-ish) 

One of the surest ways to sink a perfectly good picnic? Feeling like you have to do the absolute most. Following the prime cottagecore years of the pandemic, Instagram and TikTok timelines are flooded with images of bespoke picnic blankets covered with multiple charcuterie plates, glass (!) pitchers of iced tea and vases packed with flowers that are decidedly not from Trader Joe's.

These photographs, however, are likely the product of a staged set decoration versus an actual desire to, you know, eat food on the ground. 

To each their own, of course, but if you're planning a practical picnic as opposed to an outing for content, the preparation is going to look a tad different. 

You don't need a full DIY-sandwich bar with 17 different topping options. The best picnic sandwich I can think of is a jambon-beurre, the very simple, very delicious French sandwich made by slathering butter on a crusty loaf and topping it with delicate slices of paper-thin ham. (Smoky marinated eggplant works well for those who don't eat meat.)

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You don't need to whip out a meticulously-assembled cheese and fruit board. A paper bag of peak-season peaches and plums is easy to transport and even easier to divide among friends. Glass pitchers are gorgeous, but they're a pain to keep safe among boisterous dogs and kids. 

I'm not in any way trying to dissuade you from cute touches. In fact, as the world completes its transformation into a 196.9 million square-mile dumpster fire, I've started to live for cute touches. Dress up your jambon-beurre with crinkly sandwich paper and twine. Pack a strawberry slab pie in one of these adorable insulated containers. Heck, grab some flowers at the corner store and toss them in an eco-friendly paper vase.

Ultimately, don't feel pressured to transform a simple gathering into an "event." 

Ina Garten is the queen of navigating this particular brand of effortless-enough entertaining. For inspiration, watch a few episodes of "Barefoot Contessa," in particular, the one where she throws a beachside birthday party for a very good dog. Consider this your textbook for outdoor summer entertaining. 

Grab a few punchy condiments 

The one place I'd recommend going above and beyond, however, is the condiment department. If this advice seems contradictory, let me remind you that I once wrote "Saucy," a column entirely about condiments, for Salon Food. Offering and being offered a good condiment selection is my love language.

You don't have to go crazy here — simply consider what's on the menu. Would some chili crisp make a good addition to that cold noodle salad? Would those sandwiches benefit from a little smear of grainy mustard? The best picnic I ever attended was hosted by a friend who packed homemade biscuits, a couple of jars of jam and little else. It was magic

To take things to the next level, carefully toss a few good condiment options in your bag or cooler.

Don't futz with plastic cups and bottles 

To enjoy quality drinks at a picnic, you don't have to exert yourself by decanting wine and transporting it in flasks or tumblers. You also don't need to juggle liters of soda that won't stay cool or stacks of plastic red cups. From RTD cocktails to sparkling teas and wine, almost anything you could want to drink comes in a can these days. Specialty grocers and liquor stores are both good places to peruse the options. 

Optional: Don't forget about the park grill 

It could be argued that this tool turns a picnic into a cookout, but I'm still going to throw it out there. Park grills are ridiculously underutilized, and they can add a lot of extra flavor to eating outdoors. 

Of course, the sky's the limit. I recently watched in awe as a woman whipped out a cast-iron skillet and proceeded to make a full berry cobbler in a Chicago city park. 

To preserve your sanity, keep the menu simple. Grill some ears of corn and amp up the flavor with butter and Tajin, or toss some peaches on there for a ridiculously easy dessert paired mint and whipped cream.

Want a sweet treat for your picnic?

Try these:

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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