On holiday weekends, we’re thinking of picnics. Feeding a crowd can get expensive, so check out our ideas for picnics on a budget. With a little planning, it’s easy to pull together the makings for a picnic from supplies you probably already own. We’ve also included links to popular recipes for do-ahead dishes that travel well.
Here are some tips for a picnic on the cheap:
Load your picnic into any large bag or basket. This might be a large beach tote, a shopping basket or large paper bag with handles.
Make a portable cooler from a cardboard box lined with a plastic garbage bag. Load cold food into the cooler and place ice packs on top for maximum chilling effect.
For ice packs, fill one or more plastic or metal water bottles and freeze them solid (at least 24 hours). Be sure to leave plenty of head space, because water expands as it freezes. These water bottles can double as a source of drinking water for the ride home. Alternatively, use well-rinsed milk cartons or zipper bags to create ice packs.
Bring a ground cover, such as a plastic tarp or heavy blanket. Even seemingly dry locations can become damp after an hour or two of sitting. Top your cover with a pretty tablecloth for a festive look.
Include sun and wind protection as needed, including hats, sunglasses and umbrellas.
Pack two sets of cleaning cloths or paper towels. Prepare one wet set, by soaking cloths or towels in soapy water and wringing out them out before sealing in a zipper style bag. Leave the other set of towels dry and pack them in a separate bag.
Use your everyday kitchenware. Save money on disposables by using your cloth napkins and stainless flatware. Buy inexpensive paper plates and cups, or bring real plates and glasses, as long as you pack them carefully to avoid breakage — wrap breakables in the napkins or extra dish towels. Be sure to monitor trash disposal to avoid tossing out your good stuff.
Don’t forget a garbage bag, especially in out-of-the-way locations without trash receptacles. In the wilderness, remember to take only photographs and memories; leave nothing but footprints.
Minimize expensive meats. If you want to include them, the cheapest meat choices are a whole roast chicken, served cold; homemade ground beef salami or canned tuna (made into tuna salad mixed with chopped celery, onion, pickle and mayonnaise). But read on for cheaper solutions.
Use meat or fish in a supporting role, rather than as the main attraction. Try Muffaletta Sandwiches, Pan Bagnat Sandwiches or Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls. You can also include less expensive protein sources such as eggs and legumes. Try deviled eggs (Cajun Deviled Eggs, Bacon Cheddar Deviled Eggs and Spinach Deviled Eggs), Spanish Egg and Potato Tortilla or Hummus and Vegetable Lavash Sandwiches.
Grains, potatoes, nuts and locally grown seasonal produce are even less expensive and pack plenty of flavor. When choosing salad recipes, use ones that include a homemade dressing, which saves you scads of money over bottled dressings. Here are a few ideas and popular recipes for delicious, do-ahead appetizers, vegetable salads and fruit salad. They are all cheap and easy to make, transport and enjoy:
- Simple, hearty appetizers include Black Bean Salsa to serve with tortilla chips, Hummus (chickpea spread) to serve with pita bread and Classic Caponata (Italian Eggplant Relish) to serve with focaccia bread.
- These vegetable salads feature seasonal summer produce and easy homemade dressings: Restaurant-Style Coleslaw I, Ramen Coleslaw, Apple Cole Slaw or California Cole Slaw, plus international recipes for Greek Salad, Peruvian Causa Potato Salad or Jacques Pepin’s French Potato Salad.
- These salads are made with healthy and delicious grains and legumes: Farro Salad with Asparagus and Parmesan, Turkey and Wild Rice Salad, Eastern Rice Salad, Layered Vegetable Salad, CPK Chopped Salad and Chopped Salad with Chicken, Couscous, and Vegetables.
- Fresh fruit salad is easy to make with 6 to 8 cups of any or all of the following fruits: melon chunks (honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon or a combination), strawberries (whole or halves), blueberries, seedless grapes and bananas. Summer fruit needs only a simple dressing of freshly grated zest and the juice squeezed from one fresh lemon. For extra sweetness, toss the fruit with 6 to 8 ounces of strawberry or lemon yogurt. Tip: To prevent bananas from browning, carry the unpeeled fruit to the picnic and slice into the salad just before serving.
For dessert, bake something easy from scratch. Sturdy, packable choices include everyone’s favorite chocolate chip bar cookies or chocolate brownies, as well as zucchini bread or this favorite lemon Jello cake, which is made from a cake mix, and is fabulous for a summer picnic.
For beverages, skip the soft drinks and choose something appropriate for warm weather, such as iced tea or lemonade. (Hint: Freeze some of either beverage in ice cube trays and use them to keep the beverage cold, without diluting it.) If there’s a designated driver, you may want to indulge in a growler of beer or a jug of inexpensive, chilled white or rosé wine.