While spending time outdoors — masked and at a distance — is a lower-risk way to socialize in person with others, replacing an air-conditioned restaurant brunch with a picnic takes a little more planning than rolling out of bed and hopping on the subway. “A picnic can teeter into being really unpleasant if you have too much stuff or don’t bring enough,” says Ali Rosen, the host of Potluck With Ali and author of the potluck cookbook Bring it!. And though she says it’s important to strike a balance between bringing too much and too little, most folks likely have on hand what they need to picnic.
Whether you’re picnicking at a city park, state beach, or your own backyard, we spoke to four picnicking professionals — including some who have been planning picnics for years — about the best picnic blankets, foldable chairs, and food, plus the bags (or wagons) for carrying it all. However, before you go ahead and gear up, all our experts recommended checking out your picnic destination’s rules and regulations — regarding where and what you sit on and how you prepare food — to make sure you’re staying above board. (Drinking alcohol is also a ticketable offense at parks citywide — but more on that below.)
Picnic baskets and coolers
While a wicker basket is aesthetically pleasing, it is often hard to store and carry and is not well insulated. All of the experts who we spoke to advised carrying something with a more comfortable strap, and most say an insulated tote is ideal, especially since it folds down. In order to keep things cold all day, Julie Lindenman, owner of an eponymous event-planning company, which pivoted to picnic planning during the pandemic, packs this easy-to-carry Yeti soft cooler with ice and says it still fits up to “a couple bottles of wine, lunch for two people, two water bottles, and a few other drinks.” Our colleagues at Grub Street call Yeti coolers “indestructible,” and we’ve named them as among the best gifts for beer lovers, who are always in the mood for a cold one.
One major (and recurring) complaint about Yeti coolers is the price, so if you want something a little more budget-friendly but with the same function, Lindenman recommends one of these insulated totes from L.L. Bean or REI, adding, “even your local corner store probably sells them at this point.”
“We do most of our picnics in reusable totes, just because you can flatten it and get on with your life,” echoes Wendy Weston, founder of Perfect Picnic, which has been organizing European-style artisanal picnics since 2011. Weston likes the insulated totes from Scout but says that putting frozen water bottles (or a frozen washcloth) at the bottom of any easy-to-carry tote is just as good as filling with ice cubes.
If you are going to go the route of a traditional-style wicker basket, three out of our four experts recommend buying one that comes with cutlery inside it. At Personal Attention, a New York City-based, French-inspired event service, which also plans picnics, project manager Laéthycia Simms vouches for the Bee & Willow wicker basket because “there’s an insulated section, so you just put ice inside and can keep everything cool.”
With more stores than usual closed, Rosen notes that folks might need to bring more of their own gear to picnics this summer — because it’s a bit harder to stop by a bodega or supermarket for an extra thing or two. Packing a granny cart full of things, in lieu of an overflowing cooler, will help make transporting all of your stuff easier, especially if your picnic spot isn’t too far away. This trolley, which senior editor Katy Schneider likes the looks of, comes in a picnic-appropriate gingham pattern.
“The biggest pain about a picnic is hauling all this stuff around the park,” says Weston. The solution is a wagon. She likes this one because it folds “completely flat, and they can carry a lot of weight.” Not only does this wagon fit all of her gear, it also fits her daughter.
Picnic blankets and chairs
When it comes to picnic blankets, all of our experts say the bigger, the better, though they all prefer different kinds of materials. Rosen loves her portable, waterproof picnic blanket so much that she says it’s the present she most often buys friends. Plus, “the blanket has taken on new meaning during coronavirus times, because it naturally allows you to give people space.”
“A lot of blankets that are branded picnic blankets are flannel or fleece, which I’m kind of confused by because it’s so hot in the summer,” says Lindenman, who prefers Turkish towels that are “lightweight and easy to machine-wash, so you’ll definitely feel like it’s clean after.”
Weston also prefers lightweight blankets to thick, waterproof options and recommends putting painter’s tarp underneath to keep your area dry. “Canvas acts as a barrier, which doesn’t harm the grass like plastic, and it can be used to create a larger surface area for social distancing,” she explains.
Most of the experts we spoke to say that chairs are a must-have picnic accessory for those who have back issues or are uncomfortable sitting on the ground. Though any easy-to-carry, foldable chair is sufficient, two experts specifically named Qliq chairs which “basically fold up to the size of a Nalgene water bottle,” according to Lindenman.
If you’re going to be out in the sun all day, Rosen recommends bringing this pop-up tent from Wolfwise, which has sandbags to stay grounded on the beach and stakes to set into the ground at a park. “You have to set up most bigger tents, but this unfolds in one move. It opens fully on the front and back and has screens that go up and down on the sides so you can sit under it to stay out of the sun or put your kids in there for a nap,” she says, adding that watching a video is the easiest way to learn how to fold it back up.
“My biggest advice with food is, store things separately and get rid of the idea that you want to build your meal beforehand” explains Rosen, who adds that lightweight containers are ideal — like this collapsible, silicone set from Amazon — but Ziploc bags will work in a pinch. And all of our experts advised bringing what Weston calls “fresh food made to travel” that will last during travel and heat, such as whole cured meats and cheeses, fresh baguettes, jarred vegetables and condiments, and salads (with dressing on the side). You can assemble them once you’ve arrived at and set up your picnic spot.
Another highly recommended collapsible, silicone storage item is the Strategist-favorite Stasher bag. “I’ve used them for everything from sliced fruit to actual ice from the freezer, and they seal it all off really well,” says Lindenman.