I’ve had picnics in the fall, spring, and even, like Amanda, in the dead of winter. (In college, my friends and I tried to make “blizzard s'mores” outside on a charcoal grill. It wasn't our finest moment.) But I've always associated my best picnics with that carefree, summer feeling: a shining sun, running barefoot in the grass, and sipping on lemonade (or sangria) under a large, shady tree.
There's almost no wrong time to have a picnic, but there are several food items that never feel quite right: foods that will spoil; foods that are meant to be cold, or piping hot, since you can rarely guarantee either; and foods that require labor-intensive eating methods.
Keeping those guidelines in mind, here are, in no particular order, some of the best and worst picnic foods, based on my own experience and some informal polling on Twitter.
1. Ice Cream/ Ice Cream Sandwiches: While picnicking last week, I actually saw a mother pull a box of these out of her cooler and give them to her children. There was a lot of crying, sticky hands and vanilla- and chocolate-stained clothing. I understand the nostalgia surrounding ice cream and summertime. But even if you’re driving straight from home to your picnic site, odds are it won’t make it. Save it for a special stop on the way home.
2. Potato or Egg Salad: This may be biased, since I’ve always been scared of mayonnaise, but eating something covered in mayonnaise that has been out of the refrigerator for a few hours doesn’t sound very appealing. It’s the same kind of reaction people have to warm milk, or that cream cheese your coworker left sitting out in the office kitchen from the morning until you leave at night. Just don’t do it. I have, though, had success with roasting red or sweet potatoes the night before, and serving them with heat-friendly dipping sauces (ketchup, honey mustard) the next day.
3. Chocolate: Chocolate is the siren of picnic foods. It calls to you with sweet promises of happiness and no mess, but when you get to the picnic with M&Ms and thumbprint peanut butter cookies with Hershey Kisses, it rears its ugly head: your package of M&Ms feel like one of those first aid heat packs, and your beautiful, sugar-encrusted cookies look like a pile of poo. Your brother will tell you so, in even less eloquent words.
4. Fried Chicken: Aside from the dangers associated with cooking meat, cooling it down and letting it sit in the sun for a few hours, fried chicken is just plain messy. Your guests might seem excited when you show up with a bunch of fried wings or drumsticks, but it’s only because they’ve temporarily forgotten what eating those things entails: a whole lot of napkins; discarded, gooey bones; and at least two grease stains on your favorite shirt.
5. Anything you have to cut with a knife: This was the overwhelming "worst picnic food" response in my informal Twitter poll. Cutting food when you're eating on your lap is hard. Cutting on a paper plate is hard. If it's windy, even having a paper plate is hard. And cutting with a plastic knife is almost impossible.
1. Pasta or Bean Salad: Despite my rant against potato salad earlier, there are a lot of great salads that make perfect picnic foods. Toss some pasta with pesto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or salad dressing, and then add some vegetables and fresh herbs. There are endless possibilities. (For inspiration: My favorite bean salad is a combination of pinto, black and kidney beans, corn, tomatoes, onion, lime juice, cilantro and salt. Anyone else want to share their favorites?)
2. Cheese and Crackers or Chips and Dip: Another set of perfect marriages. And if you buy individually packaged cheese like babybel (which my colleague Abby also recommends for backpacking food), it's even easier.
3. Sandwiches: Tuna, egg or chicken salad probably won't make the cut. But vegetables, hummus and the classic peanut butter and jelly can all be unrefrigerated for a while. They're easy to make, pack and transport and even easier to eat. Add in fun things like basil, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, or pesto if you're looking for something a little more classy. If you're serving a group, make a few different kinds of sandwiches and cut them into small squares. Finger food at its finest.
4. Vegetable Crudites: Vegetable platters are fairly easy to make. If you don't have time, pre-made platters are also pretty easy to buy. You can also have fun with different dipping options.
5 Watermelon: Fruit salad deserves to be on this list, but everyone who responded to our little Twitter poll listed watermelon as the best picnic food. Cut at home, it's easy to serve and eat and is refreshing even if it's a little bit warm. Plus, then you can have a seed-spitting contest. Just make sure you aren't too close to other picnickers.
What foods would be on your best and worst list?