Right now, most of America is built on the assumption that you own a car. Which means most of the advice written for Americans is written with the assumption that your car is how you’re getting anywhere. Going camping? Pack up the car! Head to the mall to buy things to put in your car! Make your vacation a road trip, with destinations you fundamentally cannot visit if you don’t have a car! At this point, can you tell I am one of the lone Eater staffers who doesn’t drive and am beginning to get salty about it?
Picnicking outside involves a lot of stuff, and while, yes, if you have a car you can load it with coolers and baskets and foldable chairs (or even have a picnic inside of it), perhaps you, like me, do not have a car yet you still wish to enjoy a meal outside. Or maybe you just live within walking or biking distance from a park or beach and don’t feel like getting in the car every time you want to enjoy said outdoor space. Whatever the scenario, we have gathered a list of all the gear and cooking tips you need to picnic with nothing more than your own person. It can be done!
Make strategic menu choices
When you don’t have hard-sided coolers to load into your trunk, you have to put a little more thought into how well your desired food will travel. That’s why recipe creator Nasim Lahbichi avoids cheeses, even if a charcuterie plate sounds cute. “I just don’t trust it. I don’t want to be the cause for something like E. coli spreading or whatever it may be,” he says. Instead, he sticks with things that can easily be packed in parchment paper, like baked goods (he’s been working on a miso-butter zucchini bread he thinks will be perfect).
Lahbichi also recommends dips that don’t need to be immediately refrigerated. “One of my favorite recipes of all time is my dad’s recipe for zaalouk, a tomato-eggplant dip,” he says. “That recipe is something that I bring often because it can be eaten at room temperature. You can always garnish it there if you want it, or it’s fine on its own.” He also dresses up store-bought hummus with toppings like jalapenos or red peppers “or anything else you have in your pantry.” As a picnic bonus, you can serve it out of the container it came in.
The same consideration goes for cocktails. Bartender Al Culliton says that “stirred and spirit-forward drinks that can be batched and pre-diluted are very travel friendly — you can just pour them over ice wherever you decide to set up.” Classics like Negronis and Manhattans work, but if you’re thinking of shaken cocktails, don’t make more than one, lest you get stuck rinsing out your shaker all day. And if you insist on bringing a garnish, Culliton says dehydrated citrus wheels are way easier to transport than a lot of soggy pre-cut lime wedges.
Ditch the picnic basket
Picnic baskets and coolers are nice, until you realize you’ve been wandering through a park for 10 minutes trying to find the right spot and your forearms are threatening to fall off. Some hard-sided coolers weigh more than 10 pounds empty. Instead, get yourself an insulated backpack that can carry all your food and drink and leave your hands free. Igloo straight up lists its offerings by how many cans they can hold, while Corkcicle makes backpacks chic enough to bring to work. Invest in some sturdy ice packs, too, so you don’t have a bunch of loose ice sloshing around in there.
You can also go hands-free with your picnic blanket. Of course, you can stuff a tote bag with an old bedsheet, but there’s a whole generation of fashionable, plush, and waterproof picnic blankets at your disposal now, complete with handles for easy carrying. This one from Old Navy zips up into a tote with an extra storage pocket, while this handsome number from Eddie Bauer comes with a handy cross-body strap.
Remember: Granny carts never go out of style
Culliton says an old-fashioned granny cart is essential for their picnic days, especially when they plan on bringing cocktails. “When I lived near Prospect Park, I’d pack up a granny cart with picnic blankets, a small cooler for ice, bottles of batched cocktails, my bar kit, and glassware,” they say. “A cart makes it possible to move the whole operation easily.” Lahbichi also recommends a foldable shopping cart like this one from Tarzian West, which comes with a detachable bag, so you can easily take it apart if you need to make room for storage.
Pack it up, pack it in
Stackable, light, airtight containers are the key to both transporting your food safely and ensuring that it stays fresh. Lahbichi likes these from IKEA, which come in basically every size. There are also sets with locking lids if you’re extra worried about leaks. And while glass containers might be more aesthetically pleasing, when you’re carrying your picnic on your person, lightness takes precedence.
Where you can go heavier is with, as Culliton also suggests, swing-top glass bottles for portable drinks (a one-liter bottle will hold about eight servings) because even though glass is heavy, a bottle of pre-batched cocktails is way more space-efficient than a 30-rack of beer. You can also pack some lightweight aluminum cups to make things a little more chic than red plastic. And of course, wherever you go, make sure you carry all your trash out. By this point, it should be a lot easier.