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Creative Ideas for a Picnic Lunch

June is National Picnic Month, but the most popular picnic foods are great anytime. We’ve got picnic menu ideas that are a little “outside the basket”.

Who doesn’t love a great picnic? When the weather’s nice, there’s nothing better than a day at the park with a big blanket, a basket of food and your favorite beverage. But what to bring? What are the most popular picnic foods? Worry not: we’ll help you put together a picnic food list and give you some great ideas for a picnic lunch.

A white platter of breaded chicken strips with dipping sauce and green onion and parsley garnish.

Where Does the Word Picnic Come From?

First of all, let’s debunk the myth going around the Internet that the word is derived from a racial slur and is connected to lynchings. That rumor began around 1999, has resurfaced occasionally, and is simply not true.

The word “picnic” actually comes from the French term pique-nique, which originally referred to a group of people in a restaurant who brought their own wine. It first appeared in print in 1692 in Origines de la Langue Française, which describes the term as being “of recent origin”. The French noun pique means pike or spade, while the verb piquer means to sting or pinch. Meanwhile, nique is not even a French word, so pique-nique was likely coined as a nonsense term.

Over time the term was Anglicized to picnic, and the gatherings it referred to typically involved conversing over drinks and card games. Eventually the word would return to its French “bring your own” roots, and referred to a meal where everyone contributed something: a precursor to what we now call a “potluck”.

The earliest outdoor picnics as hosted in France and England—and later America—followed this potluck-style practice but were rather elegant affairs involving dressy clothes and fine china. Today the presentation is, of course, more casual, as is the food.

Popular Picnic Foods

Any modern list of favorite picnic foods is going to start with potato salad. (Isn’t it amazing how many people build their picnic menu ideas around a side dish?) It’s inexpensive, available at any grocery store deli, and is one of the most popular summer side dishes. Of course, we think it can be improved upon…and we’ll get to that later.

Another picnic favorite is fried chicken. It’s popular because you can fry it up at home ahead of time, it travels well, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable when not piping hot. Of course, if your picnic is in a park with access to community grills—or if you have a little portable charcoal grill—your meat options just grew tremendously: hot dogs, burgers…or dare we say steaks?

Some people simply opt to buy cheese and cold cuts and make sandwiches. Nothing wrong with that, but we can improve on that concept as well.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s take these ideas for a picnic lunch and plan an al fresco meal you’ll be proud to serve to even the most discriminating guests…

Two varieties of Bavarian Brats on a wooden platter, with sliced peppers, relish, mustard, and a basket of buns.

Picnic Food List

Since so many picnic menu ideas start with easy side dishes like potato salad, let’s go there. Yes, a good potato salad can be found at the deli counter of your favorite supermarket…but being a steak company, we like a proper steakhouse potato salad. This style is essentially the cold version of the loaded baked potato you often see alongside a juicy steak on your plate at a good steak joint. The dressing is both sour cream and mayonnaise instead of just mayo, and there’s a good portion of Cheddar cheese and, of course, bacon. Make your own with this recipe, or pick some up at the supermarket and add some quality bacon of your own, along with a couple handfuls of shredded sharp Cheddar cheese.

Now how do you improve on that picnic classic, fried chicken? How about if you eliminate the bones…and the frying? Buy pre-breaded chicken tenders—make sure they’re the quality ones made from chicken breast, not the chopped and pressed “parts”—bake them in the oven and bring them to your picnic!

Or how about grilling that main picnic course? Some parks have those community grills that just need a little cleaning…or you can always get a nice little compact charcoal grill that will do the trick. Need less hassle? Consider one of those little disposable grill kits and use it to crank out some perfectly grilled burgers, sausages and hot dogs. Premium aged steaks, of course, would be even better.

More in a sandwich mood? You could go the cold cuts-and-cheese route, or fry up a little extra of the bacon you used for that steakhouse potato salad and put together some classic BLTs. Or pull out all the stops and turn that BLT up to 10 with this lobster, bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato sandwich recipe! Better yet, skip the whole killing and boiling steps and make the lobster part easier with premium lobster that’s ready to go.

What to drink? Well, if you’re bringing the kids along, there’s nothing like a jug full of lemonade or iced tea…or mix them together for the classic and refreshing “Arnold Palmer”. If it’s an adult gathering, a bottle of wine travels well and is less cumbersome than a cooler of beer. A dry red is fine if you’re doing steak, but white is best for most of the sides we’ve been talking about. Actually, the best picnic choice is somewhere in between: a rosé. It’s the number-one choice in Provence, where they really know how to throw a pique-nique, and it goes with everything. Now, we’re not talking about a blush (like white zinfandel), which is fairly sweet and a terrible choice with steak. Go for a crisp, dry rosé, chill it in the fridge so it’s ice-cold, and by the time you get to your picnic spot it will be at the right temperature.

How About an Indoor Picnic?

What if you’ve planned all week, but have a rainy day? Or you’re dying to go on a picnic but it’s the dead of winter? No problem—break out the blanket and basket and put on an indoor picnic!

An indoor picnic is a great idea for a romantic date night, or a lot of fun for a dinner gathering. Remember those fancy French and English gatherings we mentioned earlier? Get out the good china, dress up a bit and have a blast! The logistics of food just got a whole lot easier since your kitchen is just a few feet away, but stick to real picnic food to play along with the theme. Make those dressed-up BLTs with lobster and avocado, whip up a batch of steakhouse potato salad, and start with some easy appetizers fresh and hot from your kitchen. And in the true spirit of the original pique-nique, ask your guests to contribute the wine!

There’s no need to wait for National Picnic Month in June, or even nice weather. All you need are some good ideas for a picnic lunch, some popular picnic foods and a little creativity, and you can put on a great picnic anytime!