Before you spread out the red plaid blanket, take a look back at this summer tradition our editors once called "picknickery." We searched our archive to gather ideas for a classic outing.
What's Your Style?
People tend to fall into two camps when it comes to picnics: those who like to spread a blanket on the ground, such as these couples in the May 1979 issue of Better Homes & Gardens, and those who prefer to claim a table under a big shade tree. We're fans of either option—after all, meals just taste better when they're eaten outside. We also admit to being a bit jealous of the ability to pull a station wagon into an out-of-the-way spot and flip down the tailgate to create a built-in counter and buffet, like at the picnic featured in the July 1962 magazine. That story encouraged impromptu picnics on the go. "There's one thing about the happy art of picknickery," the editors noted. "Not only can it be part of your vacation, it can extend those few carefree weeks by as many pretty Saturdays and Sundays and workday evenings as there are in a summer."
Grab the Gear
We love the nostalgia of a wicker picnic basket. At the same time, we're open to reinvention. In the July 2007 issue, editors suggested using a tote for garden tools to carry items to the backyard grill; the idea works just as well for a picnic. Another throwback idea: Fill a child's wagon with ice, and use it as cooler, as was featured in the June 2012 magazine.
Whether you're keeping it classic with a basket or trying something new, be mindful of the types of items you're packing. The July 1990 issue now seems a bit ahead of its time with its "When You Picnic, Keep It Green" story that urged readers to ditch the throwaways. The article suggested investing in spatterware, a camping classic, for dishware that would last a lifetime and using washable bandanas as napkins and placemats. (It even suggested natural foods like bananas and oranges for their biodegradable "wrappers." "Sometimes, you just can't improve on nature," the story noted.) In more recent years, popular eco-friendly options include bamboo flatware and melamine plates and bowls in fun colors and patterns that perk up any picnic.
If you want to make your picnic extra special, consider a unique location or plan it around a theme. It was a dresses and suits affair for the July 1962 picnic, above left, which editors suggested holding on the lawn before an outdoor theater performance or concert. (Be sure to check ahead with the venue if you're planning something similar today.) Roasted chicken was on the menu, and "proof that a picnic can dress for the occasion," the story noted. That same story suggested a kids' hobo-theme picnic, above right, with food wrapped in red bandanas.
Other ideas over the years included a 1980s lunch-hour picnic to break up the workday and, when the sun is beating down, holding a picnic on an enclosed porch. Just about anywhere goes. "The park, the beach, the backyard, the forest preserve, the bike trail—they're all beckoning for an impromptu outdoor feast," noted a story in the June 2003 magazine. And if your summer is just too jam-packed, save the get-together for winter. In "Snowtime Picnic!" in the December 1962 issue, bundled-up kids and adults enjoyed bowls of lumberjack stew served as part of a "hot luck toboggan buffet.See the July 1962 Picnic
Plan the Menu
And now, the heart of any picnic: the food. Judging from the potluck-style spreads in the 1950s and '60s, food was a big deal. Cold fried chicken and potato salad served on a red plaid tablecloth kept things classic. But as a June 1962 story in the magazine noted, "A picnic doesn't have to mean charred hot dogs and sticky fingers." Serious picnickers seemed to up their grill game with sizzling T-bone steaks until less conventional picnic foods began to emerge.
As an alternative to the usual fare, a July 1968 recipe suggested grilled Hawaiian Ham Slices—thick slices marinated in pineapple juice, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. In the May 1979 magazine, picnic food had been elevated to a "gourmet feast" and the outing moved to the morning with a breakfast picnic. Convenience seems to dominate in recent years, with lighter salad offerings and meals that can be made ahead to avoid spending time at the grill.
And Our Top Pick Picnic Food...
Sandwiches! They're nothing fancy, but they remain a favorite for their make-ahead ease and portability.
As far back as the June 1928 issue, in "A Picnic In Fifteen Minutes," editors called sandwiches the backbone of a picnic, and praised meatpackers for answering the demand for canned and jarred meats. Their suggested standbys to have in the cupboard for an impromptu picnic included canned tuna and "delicious varieties of tongue packed away in glass jars for easy slicing."
Fast forward to today, and sandwiches (hold the tongue, please) are still a favorite. In the June 2020 issue, hoagies, above, were the magazine's top choice for picnics. The recipe is simple: Hollow out the centers of Italian-style baguettes to max out fillings, and build the hoagies with whatever ingredients you like. For a caprese version, spread pesto mayonnaise on the bread and fill with deli roast beef or leftover grilled steak, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil. Bundle the make-ahead sandwiches with reusable beeswax wraps (such as ones from Z Wraps ) and tie with string to contain all the ingredients. Then just pack, go, and enjoy a meal in the great outdoors!See How These Hoagies Were Wrapped