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.
“If you’re trying to do something special, do one of those little things, like order patterned napkins, just to make it feel like something is happening,” encourages Rosen. Strategist senior editor Anthony Rotunno recommends a vibrant, “museum-quality” set from Caspari.
In addition to food, water is essential for making your picnic enjoyable — and according to the experts we spoke to, a frozen water bottle can not only help keep you hydrated as it melts, it doubles as an ice pack on your way there. Lindenman specifically recommends the bottles from Vapur, because they’re “flexible and rollable, so at the end of the day, it’s not like a massive empty water bottle rolling around in your bag.”
In New York City, public consumption of alcohol is usually a $25 ticketable offense, but to-go liquor licenses during the coronavirus have loosened the open-container laws, so our experts say that (with a little finesse) picnic drinking is likely easier than ever. Weston advises against bringing more conspicuously packaged bottles of wine and instead recommends filling a Corkcicle canteen with one (or two) bottles of wine, or a premixed cocktail, adding, “they actually work — you can put that bottle in the sun and it stays cold.” Plus, the canteen hides obvious alcohol labels.
Koozies also help obscure alcohol labels on cans, says Lindenman. Strategist writer Dominique Pariso recommends the triple-insulated koozies from BrüMate, which keep everything from slim, 12-ounce White Claws to 24-ounce tall boys as ice-cold as when you “first cracked it open straight from the cooler.”
“One thing that a picnic can be now, that it isn’t necessarily at other times, is, it’s a great way to support restaurants, especially Black-owned restaurants,” says Rosen, who recommends using the app EatOkra to find Black-owned restaurants and food trucks near you (the app is free, but food is not). All of our other experts agree that this summer more than ever, picnics can be a way to support local businesses and take a break from cooking, especially since restaurants across the city are beginning to offer prepackaged picnic spreads — many of which are detailed in this list, compiled by our colleagues at Eater.
Once you’re done eating, you’ll want some way to clean up your site. While personal-hygiene basics, like hand sanitizer and wipes, are must-haves for keeping yourself clean, all of the experts also recommend bringing trash bags to maintain your picnic area. “The last thing you want is to carry around a Whole Foods bag that’s overflowing with garbage while you look for a trash can,” says Weston, who notes that the Clean Cube trash bins have a cute paper, gingham exterior, and an interior trash bag so “you don’t have to deal with things falling out of it.”
“People tend to forget, but it’s nice to have options of what to do at a picnic, especially if you’re in a group, and a board game helps keep people engaged,” says Simms, who is one of a couple of experts to recommend bringing games along to your picnic. Though there are many board games for couples and families, if you’re looking for a socially distant group game, consider one where a single person can control all the pieces, like expert-approved word-deduction game Codenames.
In addition to sunscreen and a hat, Simms brings a spray bottle to picnics, especially in parks with limited shade, like the Brooklyn Bridge Park. “When the sun is out, it’s nice to have a little spritz, and when you’re not using the bottle, you can put it in the basket with the ice to stay cold,” she says, adding that spray bottles are very popular in French picnicking.
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