The last year has been the year of the picnic. With indoor gatherings curtailed, it seems everyone has tried their hand at taking their meals al fresco. Last fall, Claire Wiley, the Connecticut-based content creator behind the blog By Claire Wiley and three of her friends and fellow New England bloggers, Caitlin Houston, Kristy Cadwallader of Kristy & New England, and Helen Phillips, of Life on Phillips Lane, planned the ultimate Vermont getaway. During their weekend escape, Wiley orchestrated a picture-perfect lakefront picnic for her friends. A favorite pastime, Wiley says planning a memorable picnic gathering is more nuanced than just tossing some food in a cooler (though that’s fine, too!). Wiley shares her tips for hosting a picnic to remember–that will leave you plenty of time to relax and enjoy your friends.
Make the location a destination.
Wiley likes to plan her picnics at a spot her friends aren’t likely to have been before to make the event memorable. She also likes locations that have built-in activities like a park with a garden to stroll, trails, or a river or lake. “If you’re hosting friends and family who aren’t from the area, a picnic can be a big activity,” she adds.
Scout out a shady spot.
When choosing a destination, Wiley will visit the location before the picnic day to zero in on a flat, shady spot to set up the meal. Her favorite spots have a view of water, which she says offers both visual stimulation and a cooling breeze on warm days.
Make it personal.
Whether it’s a formal sit down dinner or a super-casual picnic, Wiley says she likes to try to include something personal on the menu: Local cheeses, a friend’s favorite dessert, or even just gluten-free crackers for a guest with allergies.
Finger foods are your friend.
"Finger foods are your friends! No one has to balance plates on their laps."
Of course, finger foods are easy to eat, but Wiley says that she also likes fork-free dining “because they create an opportunity to focus on food and each other’s presence.” Your guests won’t be distracted balancing plates, forks, and knives on their laps. Plus, Wiley says, people relax when it’s a snacking experience versus a serve-a-plate situation where guests might worry about taking too much.
Choose foods with longevity.
Wiley suggests thinking about how long a food will be appealing once it’s laid out. Things like that spoil or wilt like shrimp cocktail or a leafy green salad, should be avoided, but fruits, olives, fresh bread, and hard cheeses will still stay appetizing for hours.
Wiley says a picnic shouldn’t require your biggest cooler. Instead, she likes to try to pack into a cooler bag and a separate tote for dry/room temperature items like crackers, bread, and cookies. “I like to be able to carry everything myself,” she says. When packing your cooler, lay bottles flat, tuck ice in around them, then stack more durable foods like hard cheeses as a foundation, layering the most fragile foods on top.
Create a comfortable environment.
Stay dry! Wiley prefers indoor/outdoor rugs over picnic blankets because they don’t bunch up and offer more protection from the damp ground.
A picnic is only as successful as your guests are comfortable. Wiley likes to spread out an indoor/outdoor rug instead of a blanket because it is less likely to bunch up and offers more protection from the damp ground. If your picnic site is easily accessible to parking, consider bringing indoor/outdoor pillows and poufs to help guests get even comfier.
Elevate the experience.
Cloth napkins are a must in Wiley’s book. “Cloth napkins take it up that little notch, it feels thoughtful,” she says. For the picnic she hosted in Vermont, Wiley tried placemats. “Even though it was an informal picnic, it was still so nice to have an individual landing spot for all of our snacks from our overflowing charcuterie board and wine,” she says.
Create a dynamic spread.
Wiley knows that the presentation is almost as important as the food. “I use a variety of serving dishes to get a little dimension and have easy access to different foods,” says Wiley, who starts with a large cutting board, which can double as a place to cut things and a serving platter. She also likes to mix in ramekins, glass jars, and even a mini cake stand to give the spread height.
Pack a distraction for the kids.
“Bubbles are the best,” says Wiley, who is a mom of two (soon to be three!). “They are lightweight and so entertaining, the kids can be close by and happily entertained.”
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