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How to Pack the Perfect Beach Picnic

Sage advice for eating well by the water, hiding your booze, and avoiding sand in food

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As light-hearted and idyllic as they may appear in meticulously filtered Instagram posts, picnics have their (admittedly mild) perils. As founder of the Portland Picnic Society and co-author of The Picnic cookbook, I’ve been stung by yellow jackets, stepped in a plate of deviled eggs, fended off ravenous golden retrievers, and worst of all, forgotten the wine opener. Move your picnic from the park to the beach, and these aforementioned challenges follow, with one terrifying additional all-natural foe: sand.

Here’s a handful of tips designed to help you have the best possible beachfront feast, while avoiding common pitfalls like a gutful of grit, open-container citation, sad snack selection, ice shortage, slipped disc, and/or underwhelmed date.

1. The ice situation

If you’re in it for the long haul, losing ice power early is no joke: Per the FDA, cold cuts and other perishable provisions should be kept at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (and if it’s uncertain, always adhere to the stomach-preserving “when in doubt, toss it out” precept). Start out strong with a mixture of block ice or reusable freezer packs on the bottom of a cooler, then layer with blocks, freezer packs, and cubed ice as you go, packing as densely as possible — buy about a pound of ice per quart capacity of your cooler. (Next-level-insulation-obsessed Yeti prides itself on its coolers’ ability to maintain a long-term relationship with ice.)

Stack food according to when you’ll be using it to minimize shuffling — layer steaks, burgers, and bratwurst meant for your dinnertime cookout on the bottom (anything raw belongs on the bottom, to avoid cross contamination). Stick lunchtime hoagies in the middle, snack dips and s’mores chocolate on top (more on these food choices below). Freeze water bottles before leaving the house, then remove from the cooler and thaw throughout the day as needed.

Keep drinks in their own cooler, to minimize exposing food to a blast of hot air every time someone needs a fresh drink. If you refuse to picnic without ice cream, fine, that’s doable — buy a few bricks of dry ice at the supermarket and stack them on top of pints of ice cream and popsicles. To serve, take any items chilled with dry ice out of the cooler five minutes before serving, to soften slightly.

Store coolers under the table or other shade-producing object — they’re resistant, but not impervious, to searing sun, and your ice won’t have to work as hard. If the ice does eventually melt, water holds cold better than air, so it’s better to leave the water in the cooler, if possible, as opposed to draining.

2. Whether short- or long-term, planning your picnic portfolio is serious business

There are several ways to construct a shorefront spread, and what and how much you pack obviously depends on the duration of your stay, how many beachgoers are sharing your blanket, the limits of your imagination, and how much ice power you’ve got. For group meals, if feeding four to six, plan on one starter, two salads, one main, and one dessert; for eight to 12, up that to two starters, three salads, two mains, and two desserts.

If planning a sunup to sundown affair, you’re going to have your hands full with site set-up in the morning, so save time and cooler/tote space with a grab-and-go breakfast. For lunch, nobody ever got kicked off the beach blanket for bringing good old deli sandwiches; just add potato chips, a few high-quality deli salads, fruit, and cookies. (To avoid soggy subs, ask for mustard, mayo, and watery add-ons like tomato and cucumber on the side.) Or, construct sandwiches on the spot — pack a variety of sliced meats, cheeses, and condiments in the cooler, and bread in the beach tote, then unite the two in a sand-free (as possible) setting.

If fire is available as a means for cooking lunch/dinner, the obvious choice is a grilled meat fest. Pack in several pre-grilled tri-tips, thinly slice on site, and set out with baguettes, sliced heirloom tomatoes, arugula, and chimichurri, or, go big with a full-on crab/lobster/shrimp boil or clambake. If a fire ban’s in place, stuff soft rolls with pre-mixed shrimp salad, and pair with a premade grilled corn salad, potato chips, and cold beer. For dessert, if bonfires are permitted, there is only one option — s’mores. Again, no bonfire, no problem: Instead, bust out a plateful of brownies or brown butter blondies, peach and blueberry hand pies, or that ever-popular summer dessert staple, a perfectly ripe watermelon. Cut, serve, drip, be deliriously happy.

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3. You will need snacks

In between meals, set up a shaded smorgasbord of hardy granola bars, jerky, fresh fruit and/or fruit bars, nut mix, chips, and pretzels. Keep pickled or hard-boiled eggs, salsas, and spreads in the cooler, available upon request. And an on-site charcuterie board is not nearly as absurd as it sounds, and takes just 10 minutes to prep: Slice up a few salami and summer sausages (or pre-slice at home), unwrap a hunk of warm-weather-friendly Piave Vecchio or a fresh goat’s milk cheese, tear a baguette into chunks or open a box of fancy crackers, uncap a container of assorted olive bar sundries, section a few pieces of seasonal fruit, and toss in a handful of smoked almonds. Arrange everything on a cutting board, lightweight platter, or rimmed baking sheet. This is not hard. This is very impressive. Definitely do this if you’re on a date, and even if they end up ultimately ghosting you, they’ll never forget you.

4. Packing light is totally overrated

Unfortunately for beachgoers with a lot of baggage, the ideal stretch of sand is rarely steps from the parking lot, and ice-crammed coolers are heavy. Invest in an all-terrain wagon or beach cart for long-distance hauling, or commandeer a boogie board or sled to drag coolers, blankets, beach chairs, folding tables, umbrellas, surfboards, firewood, beer, and passed-out picnickers (of all ages) to and fro. Since you aren’t worried about packing light, go ahead and bring along little luxuries like portable speakers, pop-up beach tents, and a mini wading pool for cooling off/chilling several 24-packs at once.

On a smaller scale, picnic equipment not to be forgotten at home includes dishware (bamboo, melamine, and enamelware are both lightweight and reusable), silverware, napkins or paper towels, a sharp knife or two, a cutting board, barbecue tongs, matches, and the wine opener. I repeat, the wine opener.

5. The nitty gritty on not ingesting sand if at all possible

Your best bet for keeping sand and your digestive tract separate is to get your beach picnic to high ground. Pack a lightweight portable folding table, or, in a pinch, make one with coolers/chairs/crates and a surfboard. Shade the table with an umbrella or pop-up sun shade, and if bugs are a problem in your neck of the coast, bring a set of cheap mesh screens designed to cover food (or, if you’re not into doing things halfway, set up a 12-by-12-foot screen tent).

If working with a beach blanket only, go as big as possible (aim for at least three to four square feet per person), and position your food setup in the center. Or consider a double-decker setup — lay out a large blanket or sheet first, anchor the corners with heavy items, then lay a second, smaller blanket in the middle to help keep sand at bay.

6. Speaking of sneaking the alcohol…

Depending on where you live, you’re probably not supposed to drink alcohol at the beach, but the reality is, you want to drink alcohol at the beach, and life is short. Brown paper bags and beer koozies are a bit obvious, so get craftier if you’d prefer to avoid a run-in with the beach patrol. Pre-portion individual servings of rosé or pre-mixed cocktails in lidded eight-ounce Mason jars (or plastic/metal cups if glass is also a beach no-no) and keep them on ice until needed, transfer your alcoholic beverage of choice into stainless steel water bottles or thermoses before leaving the house, or dedicate a cooler or roomy tote to being the pour-into-a-benign-plastic-Solo-cup zone, and never ever let that incriminating bottle or can see the light of day.

Consider boozy popsicles, boozy ice cubes, and boozy Otter Pops (or whatever frozen novelties the kids are secretly concealing alcohol in these days). And this goes without saying, but if you plan to imbibe at the beach, recruit a sober driver, and compensate them with expertly mixed mocktails: think a bottle of Pok Pok Som drinking vinegar and a 12-pack of Pamplemousse La Croix.

7. Clean up your act and go home

When I pack for a picnic, the first thing that follows the food is the (biodegradable) wet wipes, and lots of them. Dropped a mayonnaise-slathered sandwich knife in the sand? Wet wipes. Spilled a sticky pina colada all over your beach chair? Wet wipes. Small child just wiped their greasy hot dog hands on your bare back? Wet wipes. Don’t want to be that person who rinses their dinner dishes in the surf? Wet wipes.

Also very important for the cleanup process — resealable bags or reusable containers for leftovers, and separate bags for trash, recyclables, and compost. And finally, before shaking out the blankets and towels, re-packing the wagon, and shuffling the mile back to the car, do one last sand sweep, because an upstanding beach picnicker leaves only footprints and melted ice, takes only memories and a sunburn.

Jen Stevenson eats and tells on her blog Under The Table With Jen, runs the Portland Picnic Society, and is a co-author of The Picnic (Artisan, 2015) and the just-released The Campout Cookbook (Artisan, 2018). Kim Sielbeck is an illustrator, artist, and poke fan living in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, after 11 years in NYC.