A Picnic Planning Guide – Step by Step

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Whether you’re celebrating a change in the seasons or throwing a party for a family member, a picnic can be the perfect opportunity to gather with your loved ones to enjoy great food and company. Throwing a picnic can be stressful, especially if you are the only one in charge of making decisions about the food, venue, and activities. Follow this complete guide to throw the perfect picnic for any occasion. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know to host anything from a small family picnic to a large-scale company picnic.

When Are You Having Your Picnic?

The first step to planning the perfect picnic is deciding when it will take place. Any time is a great time for a picnic, but you will need to plan in advance to make sure you have everything you need. The season will dictate what you need to bring, what you and your guests should wear, and what venues will be available. Here’s our cheat sheet for planning picnics in each season:

Spring: Enjoy the season’s new life outdoors with a traditional picnic.

Public parks, the beach, or your own backyard can be great spots for a springtime picnic. If you plan to use a public park, you can contact your city’s parks department to reserve picnic tables and grills in advance. Although the weather is warming up, make sure you tell your guests to bring an extra sweater or blanket in case a cold breeze invites itself to your picnic. Bring a few extra picnic blankets for those who forget their own.

Summer: Soak up some rays while the weather is warm.

Summer is a popular time for picnics, so make sure you reserve a spot at your local beach or park early enough to get a spot. A state or national park with hiking trails and a picnic area or playground is the perfect spot because it gives you a variety of activity options without bringing extra supplies. For summer picnics, be sure to supply plenty of cold water for your guests to avoid dehydration. Bring extra sunscreen and sunglasses to protect everyone from the sun’s harmful rays, and make sure you have seating areas in the shade for those who need a rest.

Fall: Watch the seasons change in a cool, crisp picnic setting.

Fall brings a refreshing change in the weather and it’s a great time to have a picnic before the kids return to school. Hosting your picnic in or near a forest during the fall allows your guests to enjoy the natural beauty all around. Consider hosting your picnic near a hiking trail so you’re as close to the trees as possible. Make sure your guests bring extra layers of clothing for when the sun goes down. You should also bring a few extra blankets or jackets for those who might forget their own. Don’t forget to bring insect repellent; you can choose a spray option or candles and torches to protect the area around your picnic.

Winter: Enjoy a whimsical winter picnic for a refreshing change from the normal.

Although the weather is colder, an outdoor picnic during the winter can still be fun for you and your guests. You’ll need to provide protection from rain or snow using existing canopies or rented tents. Rented space heaters can keep everyone warm during the picnic, but be sure to have extra blankets or jackets on hand. Consider serving your food inside and planning winter activities outside to give your guests a place to escape the cold and rest for a while.

The Size of Your Picnic Will Dictate the Location

You can have a picnic almost anywhere, but the number of guests you’ll have will play a large role in deciding where to host it.

For a small romantic picnic for a couple, you can have a picnic almost anywhere. Because you can both sit in a small space, you won’t need to make a reservation for a venue unless it’s a high-demand, specialty location. A picnic for two that takes place on the halfway point of a hike is an especially romantic option.

For single parents, a park with a playground is an ideal choice. Set up the picnic on a table or blanket near the play structure to allow your kids to roam while you stay put. You can team up with other single parents to give your kids a play date while the adults spend time together.

If you’re hosting a family picnic with kids, ample space is a must-have. Try to choose a venue with a variety of activities including short hikes, trees to build forts, a playground, swings, or a large open area to play sports.

To throw a picnic party for a large crowd, consider throwing a block party with your neighbors. If you have access to a cul-de-sac, you can rope off the entrance and place seating and activities on the street. If not, have 3-4 houses in a row offer their front and back yards for the party. This will give you room to spread out and enjoy everyone’s company without renting an expensive venue.

Corporate picnics are great for bonding and relieving stress with your coworkers. For these events, large outdoor venues are available specifically for hosting events. Most offer a pool, open areas for activities, and designated seating areas to enjoy. This can take some of the stress off of you as the planner and allow you to focus on the menu and activities instead of coordinating logistics.

Will Your Pets or Your Guest’s Pets Attend the Picnic?

While we love our furry friends, sometimes a picnic isn’t the ideal place for them. Decide ahead of time whether you want to allow people to bring their pets because you’ll want to choose a location that is pet friendly. Make sure you will have access to large grass areas for dogs to exercise as well as shaded spots for resting. You should also provide extra bowls for water and bags for waste removal. Some weather and locations simply won’t be appropriate for pets, so think through the entire day’s activities before you decide. Whether you decide to allow pets at your picnic or not, be sure to communicate this to guests when you invite them so that are no surprises.

Picnic Themes and Special Occasions

Of course you can have a picnic just for fun, but you can also use a picnic to celebrate special occasions. You can host a picnic to celebrate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or birthdays. Throw a themed picnic party for New Year’s Eve, Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving. Hosting a festive St. Patrick’s Day or Chinese New Year picnic can be a great way to celebrate in a unique way.

Creating a theme is a fun way to make your picnic more exciting and engaging for guests. Whatever you’re celebrating, these themes are sure to be a hit:

Around the World: feature foods and games from different countries to experience some new cultures

Carnival: supply carnival games, popcorn, and cotton candy for some childlike fun

Olympics: create fun competitions for your guests to win prizes and show off their skills

Hawaiian Luau: decorate with leis and try a hula dance demonstration to enjoy a picnic on island time

Choose a Decade: choose clothing and decor from your favorite decade and enjoy a blast from the past

You can also choose a culture or country and focus on their food specialties. You can borrow games and music for a complete cultural experience. Thai, Mexican, Indian, Italian, British, French, Chinese, and Spanish foods can all be the center of your picnic for a taste of something new.

Picnics Within a Budget

You can throw a picnic on any budget, but knowing your budget before you begin planning will help you know what you can afford.

Cheap (Frugal) Picnic: $

Do it yourself for a cheap picnic that’s just as fun as any other. Make your own food and drinks and bring them along in a cooler. For a simple DIY picnic, grill hot dogs and hamburgers and serve with chips, fruit, and brownies or cookies. You can also make your own sandwiches, potato salad, chips and salsa, and vegetable platters. Lemonade mix is inexpensive and portable, and bottles of soda are cheap and pair great with picnic foods. Use your imagination and bring foods you enjoy–Don’t stress about impressing your guests with fancy food!

Easy Picnic: $$

Take some of the stress away by picking up take out food from your favorite restaurant. Order a catering package ahead of time and pick it up on your way to the picnic for an easy and delicious meal. Bring along bottles of soda and lemonade for easy drinks on the side.

Fast Picnic: $$$

Take your picnic to the next level by ordering take out food and bringing some special festive drinks. Once the food is taken care of, decide on a few drinks that will complement the meal. Champagne or sparkling wine can add a sophisticated touch to any picnic, while a cooler full of beer or wine coolers can add extra fun to a more casual setting. Creating a signature cocktail or mixed drink can set your picnic apart without breaking the bank.

Gourmet Picnic: $$$$

If money is no object, you can go all the way with your picnic. Order catering to be delivered to your venue, and coordinate a planned menu. Finger foods and gourmet salads are sure to please, and keeping a steady supply of wine and cocktails will keep your guests in good spirits. Splurge on special games and decorations to tie the picnic together. If money is no object, have a paid staff serve the food and manage the logistics of your picnic so you can relax and enjoy the event.

Picnic Food Ideas

Serving classic picnic staples will give your picnic a familiar, homestyle feeling. Here are some of the most popular options for picnic meals:

Main Course: hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches, fried chicken, wraps

Side Dishes: salad, fruits and vegetables with dip, chips and salsa, pasta or potato salad, potato chips

Desserts: cookies, brownies, ice cream bars or ice pops, cake, chocolate covered fruit

You can also make special foods to fit the variety of dietary needs of your guests. Here are some of the most common food restrictions:

Vegetarian: Make sure to include meatless options like black bean burgers, grilled vegetables, and hearty salads.

Vegan: Focus on creating sides and main dishes that avoid dairy and meat so vegan guests still have enough to eat. Salads with beans, tofu, nuts, and dried fruits are a great main course for vegans.

Gluten-Free: Provide breadless options like a lettuce wrap or corn tortilla for gluten-free guests. Keep the gluten-free options separate from the regular items to avoid cross-contamination. Some guests who have a limited gluten-free diet will want to bring their own food, so make sure you have room in a cooler for them to keep their meal fresh.

Heart-Healthy: Focus on providing foods that are low in fat and sodium. Include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-cholesterol foods.

Paleo: Paleo eaters can eat meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and oils. They avoid grains, dairy, and sugary foods. Hamburgers in lettuce wraps or salads with nuts, meat, and oil dressing are great options for paleo eaters.

Diabetics: People with diabetes are usually able to regulate their own food consumption, but be sure to provide information about the sugar content of your dishes. Serve salad dressings on the side so people have control over how much they eat. Provide at least one labelled sugar-free dessert option for them to enjoy.

Food Allergies: Be sure to ask in advance what food allergies your guests have. Most will need their food to remain separate from the rest of the dishes, so set aside a special area for their meals. The most common allergies are dairy, nuts, and soy.

Food Display

Once you’ve decided on your perfect menu, create a stunning food display to impress your guests. Dedicate one table or set of tables to be the serving area for your food so guests can fill up their plates in one central location. Make use of these serving tools and tricks to help you create an eye-catching display for your meal.

Simple Tablecloths

Many people are tempted to use a tablecloth with a neon color or bright pattern. This can distract from the real focus of the picnic: the food itself! Keep the focus on the mouth-watering dishes by using a simple and subdued tablecloth. It will unify the table and provide a cohesive backdrop for your serving dishes and food items.

Colorful Bowls and Platters

A single color scheme creates unity across the table, and simple solid colors work well for serving dishes. You can select bowls and platters in the same color or find a selection that coordinates. Matching the colors with the occasion or holiday can add a thoughtful touch to the display.

Elegant Appetizers

If you want to serve appetizers during the picnic before the main course is ready, consider spreading out options throughout the tables where your guests will sit. A simple charcuterie board with a selection of meats and cheeses looks elegant and is easy to put together. Place one on each table to allow your guests to munch while they wait.

Tower Displays

Don’t forget to use the height of your serving table as well as the length! Create tower displays using cupcake stands or tiered serving dishes to create more visual appeal. This allows you to proudly display all of your smaller food options without taking up too much space.

If you don’t have access to tiered serving dishes, you can create your own using three plates of different sizes and two candlesticks. Place the largest plate facing up on a flat surface and glue a candlestick to the center. Glue the second-largest plate on top of the candlestick and allow the glue to dry before repeating the process. Allow the whole tower to dry thoroughly before you place food on it.

Picnic Drinks – Staying Hydrated

Nothing goes better with a delicious meal than an ice-cold drink to sip. Staying hydrated is especially important at a picnic because people are out in the sun and doing physical activities which can easily lead to dehydration. Keep plenty of water on hand to help people replenish throughout the day. Individual water bottles or a large water jug with individual cups are both great ways to supply water for everyone. Make sure you include a marker for guests to write their name on their bottles or cups so they can refill them throughout the day.

Aside from water, you can create any number of drink combinations to go with your meal. Kids will enjoy fruit punch, lemonade, or juice boxes. The adults in your group will enjoy those as well as soda, beer or wine, and mixed drinks. Creating a signature cocktail for your picnic is a great way to keep everyone happy without requiring too many ingredients. A simple wine or liquor cocktail made with fruit juice or soda can be garnished with fruit or a colorful straw for a fun presentation and a delicious drink.

Picnic Essentials Checklist

Before you head out to your picnic location, make sure you have all of the essentials with you.

First, you’ll need a picnic basket or cooler to carry your food and drinks. If you’re bringing wine, a wine tote is an easy way to make sure none of the bottles break on the way. Flasks are an easy way to bring along spirits for cocktails without worrying about glass bottles. Cheese knives, charcuterie boards, and cheese boards can be carried separately from the rest of the food so that they can served at the start of the picnic. Don’t forget condiments like ketchup, salt and pepper!

If you plan to cook once your arrive, make sure you have a picnic barbecue or picnic stove and plenty of fuel. Carry along cups, eating utensils, and serving utensils along with trash bags, napkins, and wet wipes for easy clean up. Bring covers for the food to keep flies away from the meal while everyone is eating.

Make sure you have picnic blankets to sit on or tablecloths for picnic tables so everyone has a place to relax. If you won’t have access to a shady area, a pop-up shade tent can provide the perfect place to relax without getting too much sun. Even though picnics are great fun, they can also be dangerous, so bring along a safety kit in case of emergencies.

No picnic is complete without entertainment, so don’t forget your games, music, and sports equipment! Your guests will need plenty of options to keep things interesting throughout the picnic.


Make your picnic unforgettable with fun entertainment to last the entire time. Hiring a band to play live music is a great way to start any event. You can also create a playlist of music and set it up with a sound system so your guests can enjoy non-stop music all afternoon. For a fun activity for the whole group, host an open mic talent show for your guests to let everyone show off their hidden talents.

Aside from music, you’ll want to have active options for your guests. Something as simple as a supply of soccer balls, frisbees, and footballs can provide hours of entertainment. Check out our Kid Friendly Picnics here.

If you want more organized fun, try leading some of these fun picnic games:

For Kids:

Hide and Seek

Scavenger Hunt

Giant Tic Tac Toe

Potato Sack Race

Egg Race

Beanbag Toss

Bubble Gum Bubble Blowing Contest

For Adults:

Obstacle Course Relay Race

Life-Size Jenga

Minute to Win It Competition

Limbo Competition

Water Balloon Toss

Carnival Games

These games can be scheduled throughout the day so that everyone can participate at the same time. Make sure there is an area for spectators to sit in case some of your guest choose to watch instead of compete.

Picnic Safety – It’s Better to Be Prepared

Even though picnics are a classic example of good wholesome fun, they can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared with the basics. Here are some of the most common safety pitfalls associated with picnics and how to combat them before they happen:

Cuts and Scrapes: Keep a supply of small and large bandages, alcohol wipes, and antibiotic ointment in your first aid kit. Cleanse the area and then apply ointment and a bandage to keep dirt and bacteria out of the affected area.

Sunburns: Make sure you have extra sun cream for your guests. Use SPF 50 or above for the best protection from the sun’s harmful rays.

Burns: Never leave hot grills or picnic stoves unattended, especially if you have children attending your picnic. If someone does get burned, run cool water over the burn and cover with a bandage. Never apply ointment or oil to a burn as this will trap the heat on the skin and lead to further skin damage.

Cuts from Knives: Accidental cuts from kitchen knives can be a real danger at a picnic. Prevent this by using knife covers and putting away all utensils that are not being used. Treat small cuts as you would any other, but consult the help of medical services if a large or severe cut occurs.

Getting Lost: Make sure you have a cell phone to call for help if you go on a hike. Keep copies of a trail map handy for any guests who want to hike, and make sure you know when to expect a group back from a hike. This allows you to know when you should start looking for a group that hasn’t returned. Have everyone’s contact numbers in can someone gets separated from the group.

Water Accidents: Water safety is extremely important, especially when children will be in the water. Bring a set of arm bands in case there is a child who isn’t a strong swimmer, and make sure no one swims alone. Hiring a lifeguard to watch the water during your picnic can relieve stress and make everyone feel safe to enjoy the water.

Mobility Issues: If you will have guests who are elderly or handicapped, consider their physical limitations before selecting a location. Try to choose a spot that is accessible by ramp and is free of stairs, exposed roots, and rough terrian.

In Case of Emergencies:

In case of an unexpected medical emergency, you should know the location of the nearest hospital. Look up driving directions and print them before the picnic so that you can direct people in case of an emergency. If one of your guests needs to go to the hospital, inform a family member as soon as possible so they can come meet your guest at the hospital.

No one wants to have an emergency during a picnic, but having these supplies prepared ahead of time can prevent accidents and help keep your guests safe. Gathering emergency supplies ahead of time can put you at ease and allow you to enjoy your picnic instead of worrying about accidents.

Picnic Pests – Keeping Them Under Control

Nothing ruins a picnic like some unexpected guests in the form of irritating pests. Take these precautions before and during your picnic to prevent unwanted guests from snacking on your food:

Cover All Food: Keep your food safely covered with plastic wrap, foil, or lids until it is time to serve. Once everyone has had enough to eat, cover the food again to make sure ants don’t find their way into your leftovers.

Use Dryer Sheets: Dryer sheets contain chemicals that naturally repel ants but they are still safe for use around children and pets. Place a dryer sheet under the legs of tables where food will be kept to prevent ants from crawling up. You can also rub the dryer sheets on the outside of coolers or food baskets.

Light Citronella Torches: These decorative torches and candles provide protection from mosquitoes as well as some added ambiance. Place them around the perimeter of your picnic area, and make sure each table or seating area has at least one torch nearby. If you will have children and pets at your picnic, think through your torch placement before you light them to make sure no little ones can topple a lit torch.

Clean Up Spills as Soon as Possible: A sticky, sweet mess is the perfect occasion for ants, bees, and flies to invite themselves to the party. Prevent this by cleaning up any spilled foods or drinks right away. Make sure you have napkins, paper towels, and wet wipes on hand so that guests can clean up their own spills easily as well.

Keep Trash Away From the Picnic: While you want to keep your trash cans accessible, they should also be kept slightly removed from where you serve and eat your food. Flies and bees will be drawn to the smell of garbage, so use your trash cans to control where the bugs spend their time.

Use Covered Trash Cans: Another way to keep bugs away entirely is to use covered garbage cans. Lids keep bugs out so they have no reason to stick around at your picnic.

Attract the Insects to a Different Area: One of the most effective ways to keep bugs away from your picnic is to host another picnic just for them at another location. Fill a small bowl or pitcher with sugar water and place it 30 feet from your picnic. The ants, bees, and flies will be attracted to this sugar water and will have no reason to interrupt your party.

Clean It Up! – Be Responsible

As the fun of your exciting picnic begins to wind down, you’ll be tired from the festivities and ready to head home. Although it can be tempting to leave as soon as the fun is over, you should make sure your picnic area is as clean as you found it. Planning ahead and taking a few simple steps during the picnic can make cleaning up even easier and less time-consuming.

Designate Garbage Areas: Allow your guests to help you keep the picnic venue clean by throwing away their own garbage. Provide garbage bins or securely tied bags for guests to dispose of their trash before it begins to pile up. This means less work you at the end of the party!

Delegate Clean-Up Tasks: Many of your guests will want to repay your generosity by offering to help clean up. Make a short mental list of tasks that take only a few minutes. This gives you an easy suggestion for anyone who wants to help but isn’t sure how.

Create a Clean-Up List: Aside from your short list to share with helpers, you should have a complete list of everything that needs to be cleaned before you leave. Make sure you have these basics covered:

Pack all food or throw in the garbage

Collect garbage bags to place in dumpster

Remove decorations

Clean grill or BBQ

Walk through to check for trash

Use these categories and any others you see fit for your picnic to help you clean in an organized and productive way!

Impress Your Guests–Picnic Hacks

While having all of your loved ones gathered around great-tasting food is enough to impress anyone, add some of these extra touches for a picnic with an added “wow” factor.

Food Art: Put a twist on some of your picnic favorites by crafting them into edible works of art. Serving fruits and vegetables on skewers allows you to create unique color combinations for a rainbow of fresh produce. If you’re serving vegetables with dip, create single-serve cups with dip on the bottom and sliced vegetables packed on top. These handheld snacks are a perfect way for your guests to carry veggies around the picnic with them. Get creative with all of the foods you serve to create an artistic edible display!

Themed Drinks: Tie the theme of your picnic party together with a signature drink. Whether it’s a non-alcoholic punch mix or a unique cocktail, serving a special drink will impress your guests without requiring much extra effort. Serve drinks in a punch bowl with themed decorations or create ready-made serving cups for each guest. Adding food coloring or freezing fruit into your ice cubes can add a special touch that completes the look of your signature drink.

Memorable Invitations: Once you choose a theme for your picnic, get your guests excited from the start with themed invitations. Pop-up cards with ants and a picnic basket are a great classic picnic invitation. A simple red and white checkered background on any invitation will convey a lighthearted picnic theme. Hand-drawn calligraphy invitations are always impressive to your guests, and they can set a more formal tone if you’re having an elegant picnic. If you are throwing a picnic to honor a special guest, make sure they are mentioned in the invitation so your guests know the reason for the celebration.

Serving Ideas: Aside from the unique food display ideas, there are several other ways to wow your guests with your food service. For a more familiar atmosphere, sitting on blankets and passing food around in decorative baskets is a perfect fix. If you want a more formal feel, use a long board or runner in the center of each table to display the food while guests are seated. For casual picnics, a buffet line where guests can serve themselves is perfectly fine– Just make sure to take a few tips from the section above about food displays.

Have Fun!

Whichever of these ideas you decide to use for your picnic, make sure you take time to enjoy it while it’s happening! Remember that your guests are there to have a good time and enjoy your company, not to critique your picnic-throwing abilities. Use these tips with some enthusiasm and a bit of creativity, and your picnic is sure to be a hit!