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Picnics 101: A Guide to Cheap and Easy Family Outings

Published on: May 03, 2012

Picnic fun in the sunI don’t think there is anything more perfect than sitting on a blanket and watching the kids play, while munching on a hunk of smelly cheese paired with fresh baguette and velvety pears. Everything just tastes better outside, and the lack of a formal table puts everyone — most importantly, me — at ease.

When you have small children, meals can be some of the more stressful times of the day, and you may be tempted to avoid complicating matters with the hassle of eating away from the semi-controlled environment of your dining room. Don’t.  Eating al fresco doesn’t have to be difficult, and the memories you create are worth it. In fact, what a hero Dad would be if he got the picnic ball rolling for Mother’s Day (wink, wink, nudge, nudge...). What say you, Dad?

What to bring
A bit of planning and organization goes a long way when planning Mom's moveable feast. First, you need to create your grab-and-go basket. I use four-gallon-size Ziplock freezer bags to pack the essentials at the beginning of the season and restock as necessary. Here is my checklist for what to include:

Picnic basket

  • Plastic forks and spoons. Plastic knives are useless as lips on a chicken if you ask me, so I don't buy them.  I opt for the heavier plastic forks and spoons because I don't throw them away — I pop them in the dishwasher après picque-nique, and they’re cheap enough that when I lose a few I don’t sweat it. Other good options for outfitting your ultimate picnic hamper: bamboo to-go ware; mismatched tableware from a secondhand store or garage sale; accumulated extras from take-out.
  • Paper or — better — reusable plastic plates and cups.
  • A sandwich knife is perfect for slicing and spreading and is safer to cart around than one with a sharp tip. I love the Zyliss Sandwich Knife, which can be yours for under $5.
  • A waiter’s corkscrew. Make sure it can do double-duty as a bottle opener as well. Bonus points if it has a fold-out knife. Try the Good Cook Classic Waiter’s Corkscrew, for around $7.
  • A few bag clips.

Bag o’ bags

  • A handful of sandwich bags for packing up leftovers and anything else that is coming home with you — say, Mr. Wormy or the new leaf collection.
  • Five or so one-gallon Ziplock bags for bigger leftovers and for collecting used utensils and dirty dishes.  
  • Five or so tall kitchen bags for trash, wet clothes and towels.
  • One or two 30-gallon black trash bags — rarely use, but essential for emergency butt protection on wet logs or grass.

Various and sundries

  • Paper towels. I don’t bother with napkins. They blow off the table too easily and are not as absorbent. I just toss in a roll of paper towels and we use them as plates, napkins and for cleaning up spills and messes.
  • Cutting board.  I have a small plastic cutting board that fits perfectly on the top of the cooler. I prefer a rigid one because it works on the grass or sand. I also use it as a mini table for serving as well as for slicing.
  • Blanket.  I just leave a blanket in my car and bring it in periodically for a well-deserved washing.
  • Cooler.  The cooler isn’t necessary every time, but it’s helpful to have one ready to go. Even if you plan to eat right away, there may be leftovers to save and you might not be heading home for a few hours. Save the big cooler for camping trips and backyard barbeques. Having a few smaller options gives you more flexibility and the kids can help carry them too. I use an insulated cooler bag for beverages and this handy little stackable cooler from Coleman for the food.  Just wipe them out when you get home so they are always ready to go. I keep frozen cooler packs on hand, but you can use ice. When summer is in full swing I stock juice pouches in the freezer; they keep the rest of the food cool on the way to the picnic and the kids get to enjoy juice slushies later in the day! Since they don’t require refrigeration it’s no big deal when they thaw completely.
  • And don't risk being the picnic persona non grata who forgot to pack the hand sanitizer, bug spray, sunscreen, and a mini first aid kit. You know Mom wouldn't forget!

What to Eat
Somehow the novelty of eating outdoors makes even the most simple menu seem special. Here is my checklist for food:

  • Something that has good protein and not too much sugar, to avoid meltdowns. (It’s important for the kids too.) We like cheese, ham, turkey, roast beef, cooked bacon, salami, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, nuts, or tuna salad.
  • I make sure we have some fruit or raw veggies — whatever we have on hand — apples, pears, grapes, melon slices, cucumber chunks, or tomato wedges.   
  • To serve a satisfying meal, I always balance my menu with something salty, something sweet, something crunchy, and something chewy or gooey.
  • Something to drink. Even if I pack juice, or occasionally soda, we always have at least one big water bottle. If someone works up a thirst on the swing set, he can rehydrate without the excess sugar and I can pour a little on a paper towel to wipe off faces, utensils and whatever that glob of goo is that I dribbled down the front of my shirt.

Family having a picnic in the parkThe No-Cook Mother’s Day picnic
Going to the right grocery store is key to the success of your no-cook Mother's Day picnic. Hit up Whole Foods, PCC, Central Market, Your Local Market, Metropolitan Market, or similar — these markets are synonymous with quality ingredients and knowledgeable staff. You want fresh, preferably local, artisan ingredients.  All the hard work done by the baker and cheese maker will make you look like the star. Be sure to ask for help — in a good store, the counter folks will give you samples and make suggestions based on your needs and the family's tastes. Here's my no-fail shopping list for Dad:

  • One to two baguettes (depending on family size)
  • Some nice salami
  • Roast deli turkey
  • 2-3 cheeses from the cheese counter, plus string cheese for the kids*
  • Apples, pears and grapes
  • A fine dark chocolate
  • Sparkling cider
  • Sparkling wine like a Prosecco (optional)

* Try: Oregonzola Cheese from Rogue Creamery with juicy pears, Beecher’s Flagship with crisp apples, a creamy brie with grapes, goat cheese and figs (dried figs or a fig spread like Dalmatia Fig Spread work equally well.)

Where to Go
The fun thing about a picnic is that it can happen anywhere. Sometimes we just get in the car to go on an “adventure” without a clear destination in mind. Don’t just think in terms of parks and beaches. We’ve picnicked on library steps, in the back of our car watching  bulldozers and cranes at work, at the train station and at the marina. Of course, outdoor movie and music venues are fantastic, but a little harder to coordinate. The key is to be flexible and just enjoy the time together.  You have to eat, right?

Emily Metcalfe Smith writes and lives in Edmonds, WA, is the mother of two boys.

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