Tips for Planning a Safe and Fun Picnic

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picnicBelieve it or not each April we recognize National Picnic Day! The cool thing about having a picnic meal is that picnics can happen in almost any outdoor scenario from the beach to the mountains. Picnics today have evolved from packing some sandwiches to assembling portable cookware to prepare elegant marinated and grilled foods. Menu planning and taking care to create  the perfect ambiance are important factors for planning a memorable picnic.

The word “picnic” derives from the French piquenique, meaning a meal eaten outdoors. Picnics became a grand activity during the early 19th century. Wealthy London residents formed what was known as “The Picnic Society”  which featured shared dishes and casual entertainment. At Victorian era picnics pastries, ham, and other baked meats were enjoyed. For an idea of what picnics looked like during the 19th century visit some of the artwork by Monet, Renoir, Cezanne. Their paintings illustrate the glamour and romanticism of picnics during this period of history.

When planning a picnic there some essentials that must be on your list. The following tips will help you plan:


To set the mood, select the perfect picnic blanket. Today, there are many options for picnic blankets, including blankets that are waterproof on the bottom. You will also need a picnic basket or insulated canvas tote bag. In case there is someone attending your picnic that doesn’t like sitting on the ground bring picnic chairs. There are also portable picnic tables if you prefer to enjoy nature seated at the table.


A cooler is also a must to keep cold foods and drinks cold. Of course, perfect picnic “tableware” is  important. Pack plates, utensils for both eating and serving, napkins, and cups or wine glasses. To ensure that there is a level surface for drinks, bring a cutting board. You will also need to have a sharp knife on hand, just in case you need it. A bottle opener may be necessary if you are serving bottled refreshments. To complete the meal, consider your menu and bring the appropriate condiments, such as fruit preserves, salt, pepper, mustard, mayo, ketchup, etc. When packing condiments such as mayo or other egg based foods it is important to keep it at a temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to keep it safe from harmful bacteria.


As with any meal, cleanup is a must. Paper towels and wet wipes are items to pack. Dishtowels are great to secure and buffer dishes during transport. Bring large zipper-top bags or extra plastic containers to pack up dirty utensils. Trash bags are essential to keep the environment clean and free of liter.

Other Essentials

Be sure to protect your skin with sunscreen and a hat. Insect repellent is also a good idea. Board games and activities can add another layer of fun to your picnic.

Food Ideas

Finger foods are always a hit. Chicken fingers and drumsticks, corn coblets, cheese trays, and fruit on skewers are tasty choices. Salads are a great option because there are so many diverse recipes. Keep salads and dressings cold at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower in the cooler. Prior to the picnic prepare dressings in small jars for easy accessibility and care. A food flask will keep soups and stews warm.

Keeping Food Safe to Eat

To keep food safe from harmful bacteria it is important that proper food temperatures be maintained both indoor and out. Food must never remain in the “Danger Zone”- between 40 °F and 140 °F — for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90 °F. This is when bacteria in food can multiply very quickly, and lead to foodborne illness.

Cold perishable food should be kept in the cooler at 40 °F or below until serving time.

  • Once you’ve served it, it should not sit out for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90 °F. If it does — discard it.
  • Foods such as chicken salad, potato salad, and desserts in individual serving dishes can be placed directly on ice, or in a shallow container set in a deep pan filled with ice. Drain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.
  • Organize the cooler contents. Packing beverages in one cooler and perishable foods in another is a good way to prevent perishable foods from being over exposed to warm outdoor temperatures.
  • Keeping coolers closed as much as possible will help to keep the contents cold longer.

Hot food should be kept hot, at or above 140 °F.

  • Wrap it well and place it in an insulated container until serving.
  • Just as with cold food — these foods should not sit out for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F. If food is left out longer, throw it away to be safe.

If you are planning to grill or prepare meats after arriving at the picnic site keep raw meats in a separate cooler at 40º F or below away from other food to prevent cross contamination. Cook raw meats immediately upon arrival.

Wash fruits and vegetables even those with skins and rinds that are not eaten when packing for your picnic. This will keep fruits and veggies clear of germs and bacteria that may occur from handling at the market or home. Pack in a sealable container.

Remember, that hand washing is still very important! Bring water and soap or sanitizing wipes to clean hands before, during, and after the picnic meal. 

Now, is a great time to plan a picnic with your family or friends! To find out more about nutrition and wellness contact Cheri Bennett at 910-997-8255. The N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center Office helps provide research-based education and technology to the producers and citizens of this great county. The office is located at 123 Caroline Street in Rockingham, or see our website at for more information.