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Picnic Basics: Your Pandemic-Summer BFF

picnicking picnicking

With social-distancing measures still in place, picnics are going to be your family’s everything this summer (if they’re not already). Being outside is considered one of the safest ways to see friends and boost your mental health. Plus, you can revel in the joy of making plans again with the assurance that the picnic blankets will keep everyone contained to their own little germ circles. Best of all, eating outside relieves me of the full-time job I’ve acquired during quarantine: cleaning up crumbs. Here are some tips on the long lost art of picnicking.

Location Location Location

And by that I mean: go anywhere. Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a park, your backyard, or a median strip in the middle of the road that can offer a bit of shade, greenery and some peace of mind. Where you go is not so important; the fun of a picnic is having a meal anywhere besides where you usually eat. And we can all agree that a change of scenery does everybody good.

Gear

You don’t need any specialized gear—we’ve been known to just bring beach towels and brown bags, gasp—but a few key pieces can help the cause.

  • An insulated cooler bag is so easy to carry and is basically an updated, more utilitarian version of the traditional basket and provides more structure than a regular tote. (My sweet, well-meaning husband bought me a big, beautiful vintage picnic basket a few years ago. As much as I really do love that hunk of wicker, I’m saving it for a time when I’m picnicking without kids, or with more arms.)
  • As for what to sit on, a bedsheet works fine in a pinch. But an actual picnic blanket is more durable and keeps you from sitting on damp grass and dealing with bunching every two minutes. I bought this one on sale earlier this summer and we like how easily it rolls up. And the picnic mat is convenient and amazingly everything-resistant. This one looks easy to wipe down for all the spills that will inevitably happen when eating with kids. And this is chic.
  • If you’re not hiking, lightweight camping chairs make a world of difference for grownups. We are old.
  • Don’t forget to bring your eco-friendly cutlery set and cleanup supplies—namely hand wipes and a bag to pick up your trash.

The Menu

For kids, a surefire no-fuss picnic lunch is PB&J, chips, and fruit. Throw in some juice boxes and cookies, and you’re set. If you want to take it up a notch for dinner, though, you’ll want light, portable dishes that stay crisp and don’t require a lot of prep time.

Quick dinners are my thing and I like ham salad, chickpea sandwiches, and roasted eggplant salad. Foods that travel well include ground pork banh mi, Greek yogurt chicken salad, and shrimp ceviche. You’ll also want dishes that don’t spoil quickly, like antipasto, fig-prosciutto salad, quick spiced chicken, and Italian subs. For dessert, throw in some chocolate chip power poppers or carmelita bars, bite-sized finger foods that are compact and non-melty.

Packing

Family-style serving is great in theory, but I pack individual meals for everyone and often use the kids’ school lunch box gear (bento box-style containers also work well). Our family is not yet sophisticated enough to eat family-style; the road to table manners is a long one, and when you remove the table from the equation, it’s pure chaos. Who wants to eat potato salad that’s been prodded with kid fingers — especially in the middle of a pandemic?

And pack light. My dad always said to only pack what you can carry. That is never truer than when you’re picnicking with children. You don’t want to find yourself wandering through a parking lot in the afternoon heat, carrying a cooler, blanket, two handfuls of toys, and a bag of trash when your two-year-old stops dead center in the middle of the street, looks up at you with her big brown eyes and says “Me no walk. Carry me.”

Games

You’ve probably played “Going on a Picnic” at some point decades ago? It’s the simplest game of all time but never gets old. The first person starts by saying,”I’m going on a picnic and I’m taking…” And she chooses an item that starts with the letter “A”. The second person jumps in, repeating what the first person is bringing and adding something starting with the letter “B” and so on. My six-year-old usually beats me at this game because I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.

Also, bring a frisbee, bouncy ball, or handy-dandy stomp rocket. A kite’s fun, too, depending on the amount of effort you want to exert, since it will most definitely require grownup intervention. And be sure to throw in a deck of cards so you can play a game of Go Fish before you go home. For a change.

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Toby Lowenfels is a writer and mom of three in Culver City, California. Follow her daily musings at @tobyfels.