Community Food & Beverage

Picnic Essentials: How to Plan the Ultimate Outdoor Picnic

Earth Day is past, but if you’re looking for a reason to celebrate some more, why not give April 23 — National Picnic Day — a try?

Picnics have a long and storied history, but the modern version of the low-key, adaptable lunch outdoors with family or friends as we know it came into being at least by the early 1800s. They’ve more-or-less always represented a retreat from the drudgery of the world and a chance to kick back and enjoy life a little with your favorite people.

Whether you make it out for National Picnic Day or not, we’ve got all the tips you need to help you pull together a great little adventure.

Planning the Perfect Picnic in Five Easy Steps

The cardinal rule of a great picnic is this: Keep it simple. If you get too elaborate, you may not really enjoy yourself as much as you should. (You’re free to define what “simple” means to you, but the goal is to make the entire process, from planning to execution, as easy as you can.)

With that in mind, here’s how to do it:

1. Find the Perfect Location

If you have a fantastic backyard, you can totally use a picnic as an excuse to drag everybody in the family away from their electronics and outdoors. If you need (or want) a spot that’s away from your home, check out one of the parks around Indianapolis for a good location. 

Some of the top-rated picnic spots in Indy include:

  • White River State Park: Located right downtown, you can escape city life for an hour or two without really going far — and you can use the paddle boats to explore the downtown canal after your lunch for an extra treat.
  • Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: This is adjacent to the Indy Museum of Art, so it’s a perfect spot for families with young children. There’s even a gigantic skeleton art piece (Funky Bones) the kids can climb and swings.
  • Garfield Park: Got a budding horticulturist in your midsts? Garfield Park is the city’s oldest multi-use outdoor space, and it boasts both an amazing view and hundred of incredible plants from all over the world. 
  • Eagle Creek Park: There are almost 4,000 acres of meadows, woods, and wildlife around, so you’re bound to find a bucolic spot that appeals to you — and boats are available for rent for an after-meal adventure. 

Ideally, you want a spot in the shade somewhere for your picnic. That protects your skin from the sun’s most harmful rays, the light out of your eyes and your cooler of food from getting overheated.

2. Bring a Blanket and a Few Pillows

You’re definitely going to need a thick blanket to throw on the ground so that you can sit comfortably without getting grass stains on your clothes. If you find a spot with a convenient picnic table, you can use the blanket as a makeshift tablecloth for ambiance and charm (and protect yourself from dirt or splinters).

Some old throw pillows can create a sense of luxury and comfort to even the barest settings. They’re particularly useful if you want to lay back and watch the kids play after your meal or just cloud-watch a little.

3. Pick (and Pack) Your Food Carefully

Use two bags for your food (one insulated, one not) or a bag and a cooler, so that you can separate the food and drinks you’d like to keep cold from the food that you’d prefer at room temperature. (Ice packs or ice tucked in with the cold stuff will also help.)

Unless the day is particularly cool or you plan to eat immediately, eschew any mayonnaise-based dishes that could easily spoil. There’s a reason that things like cold chicken and salads have long been part of traditional picnic fare. 

Other “finger foods” that tend to work well include hummus and pita chips, rolled shish tawooks, fruit and cheese plates, cold pasta salads with veggies, cornbread or rolls and finger sandwiches. You’ll also want to plan for dessert (naturally) and mini pies, cupcakes or brownies can lend a decadent touch to any meal.

4. Use Multi-Use Plates, Cups and Utensils

You want to leave the natural environment as you found it, so avoid using paper plates, plastic cups and single-use utensils whenever possible. Not only are multi-use items better for the environment, but they’re also less likely to blow away in a sudden breeze.

Naturally, you don’t want to pack up the best china, but you can feel free to use metal campware or the kind of “unbreakable” plastic plates that can be washed and reused. If you’re determined to have an elegant spread, there’s nothing wrong with buying a plain service for four (or more) made of heavy-duty ceramic — which can handle being jostled about in a bag on occasion.

5. Consider Bringing a Little After-Meal Entertainment

If you have room in your trunk or basket, there’s nothing wrong with bringing a little entertainment with you to liven up the party. Some picnic party favorites include:

  • Cornhole  
  • Scrabble
  • Twister
  • Chess
  • Checkers

Most of these come in oversized models that are designed for outdoor use, but the regular-sized versions can also be tucked into a bag for easy transport. If it’s just you and one other person, a deck of cards, a book of poetry to share and trivia games can be perfect.

Finally, we have one more piece of advice: Make a list of everything you need before you prep the meal or pack. Since most items can be packed or made early, you can keep yourself (and your picnic plans) effortlessly on track.