Thanks in part to the pandemic, picnicking is enjoying a new surge in popularity. But creating a special spread to enjoy in the great outdoors isn’t just a safer alternative to eating inside at a restaurant. The art of the picnic is so much more than that.
Picnicking offers the opportunity to get creative while cooking and setting up an area to lounge. You can customize eye-catching and mouth-watering spreads including all of your favorite foods. Most importantly, picnicking gives you a chance to soak in plenty of fresh air and spectacular views.
Van life and picnics go together like cheese and crackers. Having a van means you can easily travel to stunning spots off the beaten path. With a kitchen and fridge on board, you can take on more ambitious, and less conventional, picnic foods. The same goes for the atmosphere—if you’re setting up near the van, you can move beautiful blankets, dishes, and even small furniture outside.
Rolling solo, planning a romantic date, or gathering with a group of friends? Going for a simple rustic lunch or a full multi-course meal? We’ve got you covered. This guide will let you in on all of our secrets to take your picnic game to the next level.
- DECIDE ON THE VIBE AND LOCATION
Whether you’re drawn to boho, French country, or minimalist aesthetics (or anything else you can dream of), deciding on the style of your picnic is the first step. You may want to draw inspiration from your surroundings, so this visual brainstorming can be done in tandem with deciding where you’ll have your picnic.
Shady parks are a great location option while in cities. If you have the chance to go farther afield, seek out beaches, cliffs, meadows, riverbanks, and lakes. For the top ten lakes in the U.S. to visit this summer, check out our post.
- SET YOUR MENU
What separates picnic food from regular meals is that picnics lend themselves well to a spread of many different dishes and snacks that you can graze on all at once. You should include both savory and sweet flavors, as well as a mix of cooked and fresh foods. A good rule of thumb for a full picnic is 1-2 main dishes, 2-3 snacks or a well-balanced charcuterie board, some fresh fruit, and a dessert.
Overall, opt for foods that travel well and don’t need to be kept piping hot or ice cold—although you do have a bit more wiggle room if the picnic is being set up right outside of your van. For main dishes, hearty salads like a pasta salad or a quinoa tabbouleh work wonders. Classic picnic snacks include cheese and crackers, cut vegetables and dips, dried fruit, and olives. To satisfy your sweet tooth, select desserts that won’t melt or get damaged in transport like cookies, muffins, pastries, and pies.
On the other hand, if you’re going for a small and simple lunch picnic, a rustic loaf of bread, some cheese or avocado, and a bit of fresh fruit is plenty.
- THINK GLOBAL AND LOCAL
Although certain types of American and European foods might come to mind when we think of picnicking, don’t shy away from creating menus inspired by different global cuisines. You’ll be sure to impress your guests if you present foods they’ve never had at a picnic.
Alternatively, plan a locally-themed picnic to experience each new place on your travels with all of your senses. Find foods and drinks that the area is known for at farmer’s markets or local grocery stores.
- DON’T FORGET THE DRINKS
No picnic is complete without refreshing beverages. Alcoholic options include wine, sangria, beer, hard cider, and hard seltzer drinks. Non-alcoholic drinks include lemonade, sun tea, sodas, coconut water, iced coffee, and sparkling water. Individually boxed and canned drinks are convenient because they remove the need for glasses and aren’t prone to breaking.
On the other hand, nice glassware can add a lot of class to your picnic, so think about how far you’ll be carrying your basket and decide what makes the most sense for you. No matter what drinks you select, you should also bring plenty of water to stay hydrated in the summer sun.
- GET THE GOODS
After you’ve decided on your menu, it’s time to go grocery shopping. Get ingredients to make your main dishes or buy ready-made cooked food in the deli section. Raid the store’s antipasto bar for a custom selection of artichoke hearts, marinated peppers, and specialty olives.
Other readily available packaged foods like nuts, cheeses, cured meats, dried fruits, and crackers will form the basis of your charcuterie board if you choose to make one. Don’t forget to visit the produce section for fresh fruit and vegetables. To take your food presentation to the next level, you can also buy a package of fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme to garnish the charcuterie board and other dishes. Besides edible ingredients, stock up on paper napkins, wet wipes, and ice to fill the cooler if you’re using one.
- THE PREP STEPS
If you’re preparing dishes in your van, you can make them earlier in the day (or even the previous day) and store them in your fridge until right before the picnic. When packing up your food, doubled-up paper grocery bags will do the trick if you’re not going far. However, if you plan on picnicking often, invest in a solid picnic basket and/or cooler. Pack the heaviest and sturdiest items on the bottom, and leave squishable stuff for the top of your bag.
Some of the most often forgotten pieces when picnicking are knives for cutting things like bread and cheese and spoons for serving food. Of course, you’ll also want to pack cutlery for eating the food as well as a bottle opener or corkscrew if needed.
Serving your food in nice dishes isn’t practical in all situations but, for the most part, going through the extra effort of using quality reusable dishes, glassware, and cutlery will pay off in the exceptional ambiance you create. To do this effectively, keep your food in the original packages or Tupperware until you get to the picnic spot, then transfer to the dishes.
Aside from food-related items, you should also pack sunscreen and bug spray. For our tips on beating the bugs this summer, click here.
- BEAUTIFUL ARRANGEMENTS
Creating a lovely setting is half of the fun of picnics. The foundation is a big blanket (or several smaller overlapping blankets). If you’re going to be walking to your picnic destination, make sure to pack the blanket at the top of your bag so you can take it out first. If you’re picnicking right outside the van, you can bring out fun decorative pillows to lounge on, and even small tables like bed tray tables. Candles or solar-powered lanterns can act as mood lighting for sunset soirees, while a vase of fresh flowers adds color to a celebratory picnic.
Next, arrange your dishes on the blanket or table. To make a swoon-worthy charcuterie board with kitchen essentials you probably already have in the van, use a wooden cutting board or a big plate. Start by spacing out one or two small bowls filled with dips or antipasti on the board. Create curved lines of crackers, slices of cheese, and meats around and between the bowls. Don’t be afraid of imperfection—rustic often looks best! Lastly, fill any gaps on the board with nuts and dried fruit and garnish with fresh herbs.
Picnics are extremely versatile. You can appreciate an alfresco meal by yourself as an act of self-care, with your partner for a fun date, or with a group of friends. No matter how you choose to picnic, the important thing is to sit down, take a deep breath, and admire your surroundings while savoring all of the amazing flavors.
Looking to bring more freedom, adventure, and presence into your life? Join the van revolution for a life filled with more mindful and memorable moments. Visit Rec Van to browse vans today.
Passionate about van life cooking? Read How to Plan a Variety of Meals in Your Van Kitchen.