Thanks in large part to my love of road trips to remote and secluded locales, I’m an expert at planning a car picnic. Restaurants aren’t exactly abundant in the forlorn places I like to visit, which means that I frequently trek to the grocery store for easy-to-prepare vacation eats that also happen to travel well.
With little more than a cooler, some Ziploc bags, and a bit of planning, it’s easy to put together a car picnic that’s perfect for any road trip — or even just an afternoon staycation — that doesn’t skimp on quality. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy a DIY charcuterie board in the comfort of the driver’s seat? (But if you don’t own a car, don’t worry: we have your picnic needs covered!)
Choose your location wisely
Whether you care more about scenic vistas or access to fire, location is key when it comes to a car picnic. Ideally you won’t be doing much cooking, but if you need to heat up your wares, find a park that’s equipped with grills. Bring proteins or vegetables wrapped in foil, and heat while you assemble the rest of your spread. If your picnic fare is fully cooked, you can be a little less picky when it comes to amenities. Find a secluded spot on a quiet beach or a local nature preserve.
Don’t bother setting the table
Eating in the car already requires some concessions to comfort — the seats are low, the table is nonexistent — so trying to fight the circumstances with proper plates and silverware is an exercise in futility. Bento boxes — with individual compartments for entrees, sides, and garnishes — are my favorite way to pack food for a car picnic. They’re also easy to eat from, and you’ll be grateful for the lid when it’s time to transport your dirty dishes back home. As far as utensils are concerned, leave the good stuff at home; car picnics are ideal for using up all those extra chopsticks and plastic ware that come with your takeout.
Pick car-appropriate eats
Thanks to the aforementioned space-related inconveniences, I advise against bringing messy food into the car. Overly soupy, saucy, or stain-prone foods are a no-go. Sandwiches wrapped in paper or foil are great for containing a mess, and pizza is an eternally beloved option for a reason. If you’re going the bento box route, fill the separate areas with cubed cheese, cured meats, and other charcuterie board accoutrements like pickles or crackers, or pack a snackle box with bite-size eats like pinwheels, fruit, pretzels, and hummus.
Build out your bar
Once you’ve got the snacks sorted, turn your attention to beverages. Sure, bottled sodas and canned seltzers are always an option, but you can also get more creative. Mix up some cocktails and pour them over ice into a thermos, or fill a couple of reusable (and insulated) water bottles with Arnold Palmers.
Set the scene
Just because you’re eating in your car doesn’t mean that you can’t set the mood! If you’ve got a bigger SUV, pack picnic blankets and pillows to get cozy in the cargo area, and a few LED tea lights can add a ton of charm to an evening picnic. Don’t forget a Bluetooth speaker and a downloadable dinner party playlist, or let the oldies station ring out from your radio.
Turn your dashboard into a smorgasbord
If you drive a sedan, the front seat is your best bet for eating. Arrange your snacks across the length of the dashboard, and take full advantage of the built-in cup holders. You can also empty out the center console to hold any snacks that don’t fit on the dashboard, extra napkins, or a bottle of wine. If you drive an SUV, lay your seats down to take advantage of the cargo area, and/or bring folding chairs to open the back door wide and turn your trunk into a table.
Janna Morton is a Baltimore-based illustrator and lifestyle blogger whose colorful work focuses on themes of nature, inclusivity, overlooked beauty, grief, and joy.