Picnic pronto! Pack a basket and get outside

For me, all great moments revolve around good food — and lots of it. So when I think of summer, I think of picnics. Picnics are the perfect prelude to your favorite outdoor events, like Shakespeare in the Park, Fourth of July fireworks or an outdoor concert. Or, for gatherings of friends and family to celebrate special days.

But you don’t need to wait until there’s something’s on the social calendar to take your meal outside. Picnics are perfect last-minute affairs, a spontaneous way to thoroughly enjoy a long, languid summer evening or soak up some rays on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Don’t let those perfect summer moments go uncelebrated. Gather up your picnic gear in advance and keep it at the ready so you can pack up your alfresco feast at a moment’s notice and get out there and enjoy the day:

A BIG BLANKET AND COZY PILLOWS

Wonderful food + a glass of wine + warm summer sun = the desire to doze. This tried-and-true equation for a great picnic always ends with the need for a blanket and pillow. For your picnic-to-go, have on hand a blanket that’s thick enough to provide some cushion against the hard ground and wide enough to fit you and your guests. Pillows are a definite must-have if you really want to get comfy. I’d suggest using a blanket that launders, in case you end up with mustard spills and grass stains. We use a large washable bed quilt. Because we take napping seriously, we also added in perfectly plump pillows.

A PICNIC BASKET

What are you going to carry all your picnic goodies in? I’m a sucker for iconic picnic baskets, either a sturdy hamper of woven wood with a hinged lid and handles, or a wicker woven basket lined with a cloth. Some styles have lids with built-in bands that hold plates, silverware and glasses in place, which is nifty. Others leave the top open so you can fit in tall things like a bottle of wine, a baguette and candlesticks.

You may want to unleash your creativity and try something different to hold your feast. How about a vintage suitcase? A reclaimed industrial basket? An old wooden crate or box? You could lose yourself on Pinterest for hours getting ideas!

DISHES, GLASSES AND LINENS

I’ve never been a fan of dining with paper plates, plastic forks and cups, so when I picnic, I pack real dishes, silver and glasses. At times, I have gone all out, bringing the china, crystal, silver, linens and candelabrum to make my movable feast regal and romantic. Other times, I opt for fun and fanciful summer-themed dishes and glasses that are more durable. For napkins, I pack summery dish towels, which are ample enough to cover your lap and clean up easily.

FOOD CONTAINERS AND SERVING PIECES

When you’re planning a picnic, try following my entertaining mantra: presentation over preparation. Instead of putting my time into preparing fancy food, I like to focus my creative energy on presenting the picnic goodies in a lovely way. One of my favorite ideas for a picnic: Use an interesting caddy to hold food like fresh veggie sticks or breadsticks.

You will find my picnic basket stocked with small trays for guests to put their plates upon, a cake plate to hold the main course and a pretty bowl full of ice to keep drinks cool.

GREAT FOOD

If it was up to me to make picnic food in order to have a picnic, I would never do it. And that would be a sad waste of a perfect summer afternoon. So I have given myself permission to pick up the food for my picnics. I opt for simple fare that is easy to pack. Quiche is a crowd pleaser in my home, as are sandwiches.

If you love to cook, there are millions of great ideas online about tasty but simple dishes you can make in advance or throw together the last minute. Fresh fruits and veggies, a loaf of warm artisan bread and a wedge of artisanal cheese, wine or sparkling water are simple classics you can grab at a market in a jiff.

LEAVE THE ELECTRONICS AT HOME

I am as addicted to my iPhone and iPad as the next person, but when I spend time with people I love, especially out in nature, I try to leave all the devices at home. Or, in the car, if I’m not willing to be without them for more than an hour or two. Friends of mine who have young kids or teens have banned phones, tablets or any kind of portable gaming device during family picnics because they have found that when their kids unplug for a few minutes, the family’s interaction is so much more fun. Switch your electronics to off, and enjoy Mother Nature uninterrupted.

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This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at www.nellhills.com