Hearing the word picnic lightens my spirits with visions of fresh air, family and friends and good food. Everything just tastes better outside. Picnic is a funny word, derived from the French piquenique. I think someone made it up to make us giggle, pack up food and get outside.
Picnics can involve large straw baskets with red-checked tablecloths and carefully strapped-in glassware. There are romantic outdoor feasts with delicate finger food and artful sweets. Others involve salads, grills, badminton sets and probably several trips to unload. These are delightful and have their place, but for minimal prep and maximum fun, keeping it simple is key. Just a few carefully selected treats tossed into your backpack can become a feast when eaten near a mossy stream or high on a mountain.
Preparing a meal at home usually means sitting down right after I cook, with pots and pans that will need cleaning hovering in my peripheral vision. However, taking a meal outside — on a hike or other adventure — leaves the prep work behind and forgotten. By the time we sit and open our lunch boxes, fresh air has kicked into my system, I am relaxed and surrounded by the things that make me happiest: trees, sky, sometimes the ocean, mosses, bird calls, green plants — in short, nature.
We sit, we connect with each other and the place we are in, we eat a prepared meal and carry on. No clean up, no fuss. Good food, good company and a good view — that is the perfect picnic.
A frequent bonus of eating outside is making an even deeper connection with your chosen picnic spot by savoring a berry or plant found there. (Always check to be sure it is OK to forage where you are, and of course sample only things you know to be safe.) This year’s extraordinary crop of wintergreen berries made a refreshing finish to a cheese pie and apple repast I recently made. Blueberries are flowering now, reminding us that July picnic hikes just maybe should pass a blueberry patch.
Tips for packing your portable picnic
— Pick a leak-proof container that will fit in a day pack. If you are making meals for several people, line the containers on the counter and fill them assembly-line style.
— When you set off, hand everyone their pre-packed meals. They each carry their own, no communal bowls or bags for everyone to be reaching their hands into.
— Choose food that does not need to be kept warm or prepared on site.
— Choose food that can be eaten without spoons, forks or knives.
— Bring napkins. Finger food can get a bit messy.
— Cut food into bite-size pieces ahead of time.
— Pack your container tightly with food so it does not get tossed around while in your pack.
— Use parchment or wax paper to divide food items.
There are a few suggestions below for picnic menus, but really anything that fits into a lunch box and makes you happy is good. There is no mention of beverage, but that is because water is best and easiest.
— A few wedges of ciabatta
— Slices of soft cheese — Brillat-Savarin is gooey and delicious
— Oil-cured olives
— Cucumbers cut into long spears and drizzled with balsamic glaze
— For dessert: dark chocolate and a peach
BBQ in a box
— Chilled grilled chicken legs with BBQ sauce
— Tiny tomatoes
— Watermelon and feta cheese squares tossed with a few torn up basil leaves
— For dessert: salt caramel cookies
— Smoked mackerel and capers between two spelt crackers
— Carrot slices
— Little pickled onions
— For dessert: an apple-cinnamon blondie
And then there is always that great standby, the sandwich. If it is going to be hiking along with you for a few hours, avoid mayo and eggs. Wet veggies like tomatoes are not the best choice either as they can make your sandwich soggy, and who likes a soggy sandwich?
One of my favorites is avocado and cheese. Take a slice of your favorite grainy bread and lay on a few slices of Swiss cheese. Spread with a thin layer of onion jam or chutney. Add sliced avocado, red onion slices, alfalfa sprouts and a few twists of salt and pepper. You can always add a slice or two of the morning’s bacon, too. Just be sure it is crispy and dry. Top with another slice of bread and wrap it up.
Plan a portable picnic for your next hike with friends or family, or even if hiking solo. It can elevate lunch break from mere sustenance to a tasteful delight.
Karen O. Zimmermann lives and explores on Mount Desert Island, finding delight in the changing seasons and the world of nature both underfoot and overhead. A Maine Master Naturalist, she is the author of the BDN blog Maine Morsels.