Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How to Plan the Perfect Picnic

I realize that in much of the country, cooler weather is setting in and most of the entertaining is moving indoors for the rest of the year. But here in Texas, the “cooler” weather has finally here (you know—we’re having temperatures in the low 90s instead of 100s!), which means residents can finally go outside and enjoy their yards and parks for some outdoor fun. (Many of us have “cabin fever” from having to stay inside all summer where it’s air conditioned! It’s just been way too hot to go outside.) Now that the weather has cooled down, it’s time to plan a picnic! (What a change from when we lived in Chicago, where people get cabin fever in the winter months!)

So what are some tips for hosting the perfect picnic?

First, you need to decide on how many people you’re going to invite and the locale. Usually picnics are small gatherings—no more than 6 or 8 people. That’s primarily dictated by the fact that the meal usually is on a picnic table or a picnic blanket, and neither of those have space for a lot of guests. Picnics can also make nice dates—a romantic getaway kind of thing.

As far as where to have the picnic, for many city dwellers, the obvious choice is the neighborhood or state park. Many cities and suburbs, like the Chicago Metropolitan area, have forest preserves throughout, and most of these have recreation areas with picnic tables. When we lived in the Los Angeles area, I knew people with flat roofed-garages who would plan sunset picnics on their garage tops (sometimes during 4th of July, to watch the fireworks). Some cities have arboretums and botanical gardens where visitors can have a picnic. Perhaps you live close to the lake or ocean and can have a beach-side picnic. Maybe you live near mountains and can drive or climb to a site with a beautiful view of the valley below. Many historical sites, such as Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, and Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, North Carolina, have locations on the properties where people can have picnics (with special permission and paying a fee). Those are all ideal venues for a picnic!

Keep in mind, you don’t have to have your picnic in a “natural” setting. The picture below is of my son at a picnic area in downtown Chicago. When this photo was taken, we were getting ready to have lunch there with some of our good friends—on one of our last outdoor outings in Chicago before moving to Texas. To me, that was a nice setting for a picnic. I just love the Chicago skyline!

Some of my other favorite picnic spots over the years have been the San Gabriel Mountains and the cliffs of Malibu in Southern California; the lower sand dunes at Warren Dunes State Park in southwestern Michigan (we could barely get ourselves to the top of the dunes, little lone a cooler, so the lower dunes worked fine—and still provided a beautiful view of Lake Michigan and the surrounding forests); and a lesser-known venue, a local park in Barrington, Illinois, called Langendorf Park. When my kids were young, every couple weeks during the summer months we’d meet a friend there for a picnic. She had three boys and I had two, and we’d sit and chat while our boys played. Those are some wonderful memories!

That brings me to the next thing you need to decide: who’s going to provide the food for the picnic? When my friend and I used to meet at the park in Barrington, we’d each bring our own sack lunches, and then I’d usually make a fruit pie that morning to bring with me to share, so we could all have a warm slice of pie. That was an easy, no-fuss way to get together.

I had another friend in the Chicago area who every now and then would organize a picnic and she’d do all the cooking and just treat me and my sons to a wonderful meal. She made the best sandwiches and pasta salads! It was a really sweet way for her to entertain. But, not everyone has the time or finances to be able to cook for everyone.

You could also organize a “potluck style” of picnic. As the host, you would bring the picnic blanket or reserve the picnic table and grill (if you’re going to a park) or pay the fee for the picnicking spot, and provide the main entree (such as grilled steaks, BBQ chicken or hot dogs and hamburgers) and the plates, cups, napkins and eating utensils. You would ask your guests to bring all the side dishes—salads, chips and dips, cheese and crackers, veggies and dip trays, fresh fruit (cut up in bite-sized chunks), beverages, desserts, etc.

If you don’t have a grill available wherever you’re having the picnic, one idea is to have a taco salad buffet. The host could fill a giant thermos with seasoned taco meat, and then the guests could each bring another taco salad item (shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, lettuce and tomatoes, black olives, chopped green onions, guacamole, tortilla chips, etc.).

Of course, you don’t have to have grilled or hot foods at your picnic. As the host, you could just make up a selection of different sandwiches (beef, turkey, vegetarian, etc.) for the main entrée. I went to a picnic once where the main entrée was a giant sub sandwich cut in 6” sized segments, and that was really fun—and tasty. A pasta and chicken salad is another cold main entrée that is really delicious.

If it’s a romantic dinner for two, or an all-adult picnic, you might want to bring a bottle or two of wine, but make sure that alcohol is allowed wherever you’re planning on having the picnic. Many public parks and city and state recreation areas do not allow alcohol on their premises.

Whatever you and your guests decide to bring, try to choose foods that travel well, and try to have all of the dishes ready to serve when you arrive at your picnic site. You don’t want to have to be doing a lot of food prep after you arrive. Do all your cutting and mixing ingredients together at home.

Besides the food, tableware and eating utensils, there are many other items that are nice to have on a picnic. Here’s my list of essential picnic items:

* Condiments (mayonnaise, catsup, mustard, salt and pepper shakers, etc.)
* Plastic serving utensils
* Can and bottle opener
* Food screens/covers and bug nets (to prevent insects from coming in contact with food dishes)
* Corkscrew (if you’re serving wine)
* Cast iron skillets (if cooking outdoors)
* Tablecloth and tablecoth clamp (if you’re eating at a picnic table)
* Large blanket picnic blanket (if you’re eating on the ground)
* Picnic basket (for tableware and nonperishable food items)
* Insulated canvas carrying bags and or large cooler for chilled food and beverages
* Gallon-sized cooler or ice chest filled with cubed ice
* Acrylic chiller serving containers (a container for food, which sits in a larger container of ice—to serve chilled foods such as raw veggies and fruits
* Insect repellant and sun block
* Citronella candles
* Matches/lighters
* First aid kit
* Shade umbrella (if eating on the beach or open area)
* Camp stove with full can of fuel, or portable grill, charcoal and lighter fluid
* Folding chairs (if extra seating is needed at the ends of the picnic table)
* Antibacterial hand gel or disinfecting hand wipes
* Disposable wash cloths (for cleaning off the table)
* Heavy duty trash bag (plus a fold up cylindrical laundry hamper to put the trash bag in) for trash (especially important to bring if there is no garbage can on the premises. You might want to bring an extra trash bag to put dirty, non-disposable dishes in after your picnic.

It goes with out saying that not only do you want to serve a nice variety of tasty dishes, you also want to make sure your food stays safe (meaning minimize bacterial growth). Here are some tips to keep in mind along these lines:

* When transporting food to your picnic area, the USDA recommends you place perishable or cold foods in an insulated cooler with ice or ice packs to keep the food at 40 °F or colder. A good ratio to strive for when packing your cooler is no more than 75 percent food to at least 25 percent ice. To put it simply, the more food you load in your cooler, the less cold it’s going to be.

* When packing your cooler, put the foods you will need last (such as desserts in covered containers) on the bottom, and the items you will need first (such as hot dogs to start grilling and cheeses to start snacking on for appetizers) on the top. That way you can quickly open and shut your cooler when you need something, and don’t have to dig around for what you want (which lets the cold air out and the warm air in).

* Find a shady spot (such as under a tree) to set your cooler(s) down in when you arrive at your picnic spot. This will help keep the contents cool.

* Have a separate cooler and/or insulated beverage jug (such as an “Igloo”) to put your sodas, water bottles and other drinks in—in addition to your main cooler where you are keeping your entrée foods. That way guests won’t have to be continually opening and closing the main cooler to get drinks when they want them.

* If you’re going to be grilling, keep your raw meats separate from the cooked foods. Ideally, put all the raw meats in their own separate cooler, or at least in their own separate, airtight container.

* Make sure whatever cold or perishable foods you’re putting in the cooler are chilled before you pack them. Don’t try to use the cooler to chill room temperature or just-cooked foods.

* After you’ve finished cooking your meat or poultry on the grill, the USDA recommends you keep it at 140 °F (or warmer) until you serve it. You can do this by setting aside the cooked meats to the side of the grill or warming tray or rack—instead of directly over the coals or main flames where the meat would continue cooking.

* When removing food from the grill, put it on a clean platter. Don’t put cooked meats on the same platter that contained the meat when it was raw.

* In hot weather (above 90 °F—which is much of the year in Texas!), the USDA warns against leaving perishable food out for more than one hour. If you leave food out longer than that, you run the risk of bacterial contamination. So this means, no matter how scrumptious it was, you need to throw out leftovers if the food’s been out in the open air longer than an hour.

Well, I think I’ve shared enough with you on the topic. If you’re going to be organizing a picnic anytime soon (I realize with you Northerners, that might not be until April!), hopefully some of these tips will help you with your planning.

Happy picnicking!

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