Amongst the many nicknames we give the warmer months in New England — beach season, BBQ season, construction season — my favorite is probably picnic season. From a simple blanket on the beach to an elaborate spread in a local park, it just takes a little advanced planning and know-how to take full advantage of the short season and execute the best picnics with ease.

We recently recommended several restaurant patios for dining around Boston, and where to find the best picnic-ready sandwiches, but if your plans are a little more far-flung, or you’d rather DIY your outdoor dining, here are all the tips and recipes you need to plan the perfect picnic.

Packing for picnicking

Pack right and you won't have to worry about a thing once you leave the house. Here's what to bring:

Cooler or insulated bag + ice packs: It’s important to keep your cooler under 40° F. Ice packs are easier and less messy than ice, which can melt and turn your entire picnic setup soggy. If you don’t have ice packs, fill heavy-duty resealable plastic bags with ice. Whatever you do, it’s important to keep food cold. According to the FDA, “The key is to never let your picnic food remain in the ”Danger Zone“ — between 40° F and 140° F — for more than two hours, or one hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90° F.” In other words, if any perishable food is out of the cooler for longer, toss it!

A backpack for non-perishables: A backpack frees up your hands for carrying other things, or holding the hand of your picnicking companion. Fill it with:

  • plates
  • utensils (don’t forget the ones for serving)
  • cups
  • napkins or a roll of paper towels
  • a garbage bag or two
  • any non-perishable foods such as chips, crackers, and cookies

If you’re getting fancy or doing some prep on site, also bring:

  • knife in a protective sleeve
  • small cutting board
  • corkscrew/bottle opener
  • wet wipes or pre-moistened cleaning cloths

Picnic food that’s worth the effort

Picnic fried chicken recipe from America's Test Kitchen.
This picnic fried chicken recipe from America's Test Kitchen is designed to stay crisp no matter where you eat it.
Photo: Carolyn Bick, Styling: Catherine Smart and Danielle DeSiato

Skip the deli meat and make a few dishes that you’ll really enjoy al fresco. This picnic fried chicken is a perfect make-ahead recipe, meant to stay crispy when eaten cold.

Potato salad with fresh summer veggies.
Go for a lighter version of potato salad with fresh summer veggies — hold the mayo, please!
Photo: Carolyn Bick, Styling: Catherine Smart and Danielle DeSiato

A little mayo on a sandwich is fine (go with the shelf stable stuff), but it’s best to avoid heavy, mayo-based side dishes in the heat. A fresh and light French potato saladis just as satisfying, and way better for an outdoor affair.

An eggplant-and-tofu banh mi.
Sandwiches are a picnic staple but they definitely don't have to be boring. Pack this eggplant-and-tofu banh mi for a hearty meal.
Photo: Carolyn Bick, Styling: Catherine Smart and Danielle DeSiato

Sandwiches are a picnic staple, but you don’t have to settle for deli standards. We were lucky enough to get the recipe for this hearty vegetarian take on the banh mi sandwich from Strip-T’srestaurant, which we recently featured in our favorite picnic sandwiches article. The components of the eggplant-tofu banh mi are easy to make ahead, and then assemble while you’re packing your cooler.

Hibiscus lemonade topped off with springs of mint.
Mix up some hibiscus lemonade and top if off with springs of mint and you've got summertime in a glass.
Photo: Carolyn Bick, Styling: Catherine Smart & Danielle DeSiato

Think drinks: Bring along your favorite beverages in sealed, no-spill containers. There’s nothing worse than getting to your picnic and finding that your lemonade has spilled in your cooler. Pack unopened jugs, or refill sealable bottles with your favorite beverage. Our suggestion: this dazzlingly refreshing hibiscus lemonade. And don’t forget to bring water!

Once you're back indoors: Here's a great reminder from, “Don’t forget to unpack that cooler as soon as you return home. Refrigerate leftover meats and salads which have stayed cold; discard if they have become warm.”

Now you're ready for some easy, safe and fun outdoor dining. Enjoy!