11 Best Things To Bring On A Picnic

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Summer is picnic time. The weather is warm, and the sun graces us with its glowing presence for the longest duration of the entire year. Why wouldn't you want to invite a few special friends — or a special someone — and head outdoors with a tasty lunch in tow? According to the wellness blog Mind, being out in nature can really benefit your brain and body and can give you a deeper sense of connection to the world around you. It also gives you more motivation to commit to a healthier lifestyle and get more active (via USDA Forest Service).

Exposing yourself to the natural world is also great for your mental health — it naturally relaxes us by lowering production of the stress hormone cortisol, and also increases our ability to concentrate. The sun also helps your body create vitamin D — no supplements needed — which is integral to building strong bones, teeth, and boosting your immune system (via Healthline). Just remember to always wear sunscreen — it won't stop you from absorbing the UV rays that promote vitamin D production, and it will protect you from possible skin-related cancers in the future (via National Academies). Did we mention the whole social connection aspect? Being outdoors provides a space where you get to interact and connect with your community. It's a win-win experience.

That being said, there are a few guidelines you should follow when planning the perfect picnic. Lucky for you, we've got 11 of the main essentials listed below.

1. A way to transport your food

It goes without saying that you're going to need a way to quickly move your food from point A to point B. Whether it's using a cute insulated wicker picnic basket, an awesome little backpack chiller (that also holds a cutting board and two bottles of wine), or even a cooler that doubles as a Bluetooth speaker, a few sets of arms aren't going to cut the mustard when it comes to food transportation.

When choosing the perfect picnic tote, there are a few things you'll want to take into consideration. The first is location, as in, where you'll be picnicking. If you're going to the beach, you'll most definitely want a hard, super-insulated carry-all that keeps everything sand-free (and nice and chilled). (Remember, sand gets everywhere, so the fewer nooks and crannies, the easier it is to clean.) You'll also want to think about how many guests will be joining you — if there are more than just a couple, a heavy-duty 10.5 Liter cooler bag might be the way to go. Don't forget that you're going to have to haul everything back to your vehicle, too. Undoubtedly, there will be leftovers. So make sure to pack sealable bags, like Ziploc or reusable food-grade silicone bags, or leak-proof takeaway containers.

2. And keep your food cold

Food that stays out in the sun, or that hasn't been adequately stored in a cooler, can — and probably will — spoil, which increases your risk of food poisoning. To prevent this from happening, the FDA states that your cooler should stay at a maximum temperature of 40 degrees. Keeping your food at this temperature (or lower) will prevent any possible bacteria from setting up camp on your sandwiches. Keeping perishables and drinks in separate coolers is also ideal, so picnic-goers won't be fishing around in a slew of ice, beer, and pasta salad (and ultimately letting the cold air out). Be sure to store your cooler out of the sun as much as possible, and take the perishable food items out last.

But how do you keep your food cool for the majority of the day? What if there's limited shade, or you have to store it in your truck? Instead of using bagged ice — which, if exposed to heat, will give you an idea of what climate change is and how it's affecting the polar ice caps — go for a less melty option: ice packs. If you don't happen to have any on hand, Safe Food says that frozen water bottles work just as well. If your beverages require ice, or someone wants to chill down their drink, opt for reusable ice cubes. Sure, you have to wash them when you get home. But it's better than you or your picnickers contracting salmonella.

3. A picnic blanket, table cloth, and maybe chairs

You're going to want to keep a barrier between your food and the elements, and that's why a picnic blanket is a necessity. After all, no one likes a sandy salad or bugged-out brownies. (Eck.) If you are planning on eating on terra firma (as opposed to a picnic table), look for a picnic blanket that's compact, but also waterproof and easy to clean. Sometimes you want a more organized type of picnic experience — one that requires a hard, flat surface to display all of your miraculous foodie offerings. That's where bringing a table cloth or reusable waterproof cover will come in handy. There are even single-use table coverings that are recyclable and biodegradable.

If you're wondering why a covering is important, remember that many things have touched that table-top before you arrived. (Just think of all those little dirty birdy feet.) Even with proper sanitation, it's not worth the risk of possibly getting sick. Safe Food, a blog dedicated to, well, preventing food-related illnesses, explains that wildlife can actually carry bacteria that can cause food poisoning (among other illnesses). Dirty hands, utensils, and other items can also spread germs. It's best to just forgo the au naturale table and get a tablecloth to minimize any potential threat.

4. Cutlery, napkins, and drinkware

Unless you're planning on serving straight finger foods, you're going to need utensils. (And drinkware ... and a way to wipe your face.) While plastic cutlery is typically the standard purchase for parties, picnics, and other foodie-type affairs, it's probably best to stay away from this type of material. This North Carolina State University article on sustainability explains that plastic cutlery is one of the most difficult items to recycle because utensils, especially forks, are odd-shaped (like straws), which makes them tough to separate at recycling facilities. They're also frequently made of multiple different plastics — which all have different recycling code numbers that need to be put into separate bins, etc. — and aren't easily legible. That means the only way to actually dispose of plastic cutlery is to let it sit in a landfill or to burn it. Both options produce some serious greenhouse gas emissions.

Luckily, there are multiple earth-friendly options in the wonderful world of cutlery and drinkware. Different companies opt for plant-based utensils, like bamboo or birchwood. These all-natural options are 100% biodegradable and compostable, so you won't feel bad if you accidentally drop one (because it will just become one with the earth). There are even all-in-one sets (complete with napkins) as well as plant-based solo cups that are made with sugarcane. The less you have to worry about leaving a negative impact on the environment (and the less you have to carry back to your car), the better!

5. A bottle opener or corkscrew

This is more or less a requirement, even if you're not drinking alcohol that's sealed with a cap or uses a cork. Besides their intended uses, bottle openers and corkscrews also have creative off-market uses. Voyager says that you can use a corkscrew to remove mud from the soles of your shoes or gravel from your tire tread, and also take staples out. (You know how people like to staple things to trees or picnic tables? Your corkscrew can help with that.) You can use a bottle opener to scrape a grill, remove the shell from nuts, and also de-vein shrimp (via Reader's Digest Canada).

If you're going to be popping any prosecco or sparkling wine for mimosas, you're also going to want to bring along champagne corks. These little doodads are designed to keep your bubbles from going flat. That being said, if you really want to make your life easier and have a fuss-free picnic (remember, the less you have to carry, the better), opt for an eco-friendly alternative: canned wine or beer, or wine with a screw top.

6. Cutting board and knives

It's vital to have a flat, clean surface when prepping your picnic fare. Have you ever tried cutting a lime or slicing a piece of cheese on a paper towel ... on a blanket in the sand? (Spoiler alert: It doesn't end well.) Regardless of the situation, you're going to need a quality, sturdy, but light cutting board to bring with you on your picnic excursion. 

If you're going to be prepping raw meat for a cook-out, then it's imperative you have more than one cutting surface (and more than one knife). The last thing you want is to contaminate your fruit salad with raw salmon. Your cutting board doesn't have to be gargantuan, either — it just has to be big enough to get the job done. There are a lot of different options, including colored cutting boards that will keep you from accidentally mixing your seafood prep with your produce. All-in-one prep stations are also an easy find, and typically include a cutting board, knife, vegetable peeler, and bottle opener. You can even level up and get a collapsible set that breaks down for easy use (and has knife storage, too)!

When it comes to a cutting tool, one is good, but two are better. You'll want to invest in a good quality knife, preferably with a sheath (to prevent any accidental ouchies). If you're looking for a space-saver, camping knives fold in half and typically come with universal cutting blades.

7. Clean-up essentials

Cleaning is really the last thing that you want to think about when you're enjoying a nice day out, but it's also important. Not only will it make it easier for you to finish the process when you get home, but it will prevent possible contamination or bacteria growth on food-laden surfaces. Keep in mind that it's not just cleaning at the end of the picnic, either. Professional Home Cleaning explains that you should adopt the "clean as you go" policy — that is, as soon as you make a mess, you clean it up. Basically, don't let it just sit there, attracting bugs and whatnot.

Sometimes you're in an area with no running water, so in that case, you're going to want to bring cleaning items like hand sanitizer, disposable wet wipes for hands and faces, Lysol or Clorox wipes for surfaces, paper towels, and, of course, trash bags. If you're eating at a picnic table, make sure to clean the surface before you start setting up shop. As previously mentioned, a lot of other things have used that table before you.

But one of the most important rules of all (and the most considerate) is this: leave the area better than it was before. It's not only a kind gesture to your fellow picnickers, but it's also kind to our planet. Even if you use biodegradable cutlery, just try to make it as mess-free as possible when you leave. 

8. Safety first

It's always better to err on the side of caution. Not that you should have anything to be fearful of when you're enjoying a beautiful outside get-together with great food and good friends. But accidents do happen, and that's why you want to be ahead of the curve.

Anytime you go anywhere, you're going to want to make sure you have a basic first aid kit on your person at all times. In fact, you should have one in your car, and definitely one in your home, according to the Mayo Clinic. First aid kits come in a variety of sizes — for example, you can grab a pocket-sized kit that contains basic needs like band-aids, antibiotic ointments, and hand sanitizer. Vehicle first aid kits are a bit larger and contain more in-depth items. You can imagine what your home first aid kit should look like: compact but with all the bells and whistles. While most kits include Mylar space blankets, it's always a good idea to add a few. The same goes for sunscreen, just in case.

Now, think about your picnicking location. Could it get cold? Maybe bring a few warm, lightweight polar fleece blankets. Is there no real shade? Perhaps a beach umbrella might be a good call. Going to a place with water nearby and lots of trees? Better bring some DEET-free bug spray. And always, always make sure you have sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher (via Healthline).

9. Games and entertainment

As much fun as it sounds, sitting surrounded by nature eating great food and enjoying the company of others can sometimes get a bit boring. Perhaps boring isn't the best term, but you really do need other ways to burn off energy, and not just sitting around and chatting. That's why it's always a good idea to bring some sort of entertainment, whether it be a multi-person card game like Apples to Apples or Throw Throw Burrito, portable corn-hole, or even a musical instrument like a guitar or ukulele (even a mini bongo drum). Some sort of entertainment is always welcome, and it also boosts the atmosphere.

It's a well-known fact that music brings people together — how else would you explain music festivals and concerts? But more importantly, playing music with other people has been scientifically proven to make us happy (via Psychology Today). This is because social interaction stimulates the release of oxytocin (the "love" or "trust" hormone), and playing music with others requires coordination and cooperation. Working together as a team also releases endorphins, which make us feel energized and happy. Together, these two hormones put a damper on the stress hormone, cortisol. According to GameSver, playing card games improves your cognition, relieves stress, and fosters positive relationships. And by the way, enjoying a good game of solitaire — and not the computer version (via Highered Geek) — or playing music with a few friends isn't limited to just picnic time.

10. Food, snacks, and treats

You can't have a picnic without food, right? Whether it be as simple as pita chips with vegetable crudités and hummus, or something more elaborate like a whole charcuterie board with tiny tea sandwiches, the main rule of thumb is to make sure you bring foods that travel well, are relatively mess-free, and are easy to pick up with your hands. It's always a good idea to bring snack foods like pretzels, popcorn, or chips. These don't spoil, and they're kind of expected at a picnic.

Though it's tempting to show off your dazzling catering chops to your friends, simple is always better. (You can still go the more elaborate route, by the way — don't let us stop you!) Besides simplicity, you're also going to want to steer clear of foods that can spoil quickly if left out in the sun for extended periods of time — salads with mayonnaise or dairy in them tend to be on that no-no list. Instead, opt for sides that contain vinegar and oil-type dressings and that use fruits, veggies, grains, or pasta as the filler. Other creative options are wraps, one-bite items, and pre-made skewers (like these super simple fruit kebabs).

If you're looking for sweet treats, remember to stick with the basics and omit anything that might melt or end up becoming a sticky mess. Have you ever seen anyone object to a perfect chocolate chip cookie

11. Drinks of the non-alcoholic (and alcoholic) kind

First and foremost, absolutely the most important beverage you're going to want to bring is water. If you're planning on partaking in adult bevvies, it's important to remember that alcohol is a diuretic and will dehydrate you (via Healthline). The same goes for super sugary juices. To prevent dehydration, the CDC recommends that you drink 24 to 32 ounces of water per hour if you're out in the sun (that's about 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes). So plan on bringing enough for each person in your group (and then some).

Don't let the thought of dehydration scare you out of having a little fun, though! When it comes to drinks, for the sake of space (and ease), go the canned route. Once you're done with your beverage, you can just recycle the can — one less thing you'll have to carry back to your car. Nowadays, you're not just stuck with one or two types of questionable canned wine. You can pretty much find everything under the sun — from canned cocktails (and mocktails) to an expansive variety of wines, the quintessential beers, and refreshingly crisp ciders and seltzers. You can even find bubbly in canned form. There really is something for everyone.

If you're bringing kids along, make sure that there are options for them, as well. Think in terms of healthy, all-natural, and organic juices that are labeled 100% fruit juice and are free from additives and preservatives.