Plan the Perfect Picnic

Nothing says summertime quite like the joy of being able to eat outside, as families pack up the picnic baskets and workers escape the break room to have lunch in the park.

Picnicking is a pastime of summer with a long list of tasty staples, from potato salad to thick chunks of watermelon.

With the fun of eating outside with friends, family or coworkers in the warm sun, there are some important tips-from food safety to what to pack-that can help make a picnic the best it can be as summer arrives soon.

What to Pack

It’s easy enough to slather up some white bread with mayonnaise and add your favorite cheese and ham, but even picnicking has its own trends, which tend to focus on foods that are more portable, safer to keep outside and healthier.

James Heydinger, the executive chef of Thrive Cafe and Catering, said one of the business’s specialties is packing up to-go lunches that people can use to take a day trip.

“What we call ‘little bites’ are the best,” he said. “Cheese, chilled or roasted vegetables are easy to eat but they’re a bit more fun than just a ham sandwich, all with a little French style to it.”

The more non-perishables foods you can pack, the better, Heydinger said.

“Hummus, or a variety of chips and salsas, those things don’t go bad, so you can open them up and it’s easy to reseal and drive home with,” he said.

Cissy Henry, owner of Special Occasions Catering in Marietta, agreed that portable food is the best picnic food.

“Skewers are really big right now, like antipasto and fruit skewers, because they eliminate the need for silverware,” she said. “For desserts it’s the same; stick to cookies or brownies and things that do not need silverware and are not messy.”

Both Heydinger and Henry stressed to avoid mayonnaise.

“Tend instead towards fruits and fresh vegetables, or pasta salads that are more vinegar or Italian dressing-based, rather than mayonnaise-based salads,” Henry said.

The mayonnaise is risky because of its vulnerability to bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, but there are also much healthier alternatives to suit a growingly more health conscious audience.

“Pack grilled chicken and greens and fruits and mix it up,” Henry said. “That is lighter but is also really tasty, and you can add pecans or almonds on there, and it gets in the food groups and it’s less mess.”

Jordan Flach, 23, of Elizabeth, W.Va., spent his work break this week picnicking at Muskingum Park, and said whether he is eating inside or out, his favorites are still the same.

“I eat a lot of pizza and peanut butter sandwiches, and even if it’s not great picnic food, that’s what I’ll take with me,” he said.

Henry noted that trends also have swayed more toward BBQ food, as many people crave that southern comfort style of pulled pork or BBQ chicken, and that in general these days people really just like to look out of the box

“We do a lot of gourmet wraps instead of sandwiches, because they’re really nice to save a bit on cold cuts but they’re more unique,” she said. “You can switch it up with meats, cheeses and vegetables.”

Safety

As big families gather in parks for a family reunion or companies retreat outside for a corporate lunch, the risk of food poisoning from a picnic might not be on anyone’s mind.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regularly releases reports and tips about eating outside, and stresses certain safety measures to keep food bacteria-free to prevent food poisoning.

One of the key tips is temperatures, as all hot food should be stored at or above 140 degrees and all cold food should be kept at or below 40 degrees.

While picnicking, it is considered safe to leave foods out of temperature for two hours, or just one hour if outdoor temperatures reach above 90 degrees.

“The cold always helps things,” said Josh Lane, registered sanitarian for the Washington County Health Department. “Typically whenever you have foods that are out of temperature for four hours, that’s when the throw away point should be.”

When it comes to coolers, pack them tightly with cold foods and minimize the number of times they are opened and closed.

“The old wise trick is to freeze some water bottles and surround your food, because those double as a drink later when they start to melt,” Heydinger said.

The FDA also stresses washing produce thoroughly, always using new plates and utensils when dealing with meats, and keeping prepared salads and side dishes on ice as long as possible.

“And avoid packing types of berries if you want fruit, and instead stick to things with rinds, like an orange or a grapefruit, because you do not have to worry about keeping those cold,” Heydinger said.

Lane said despite the importance of handling meat properly and keeping produce cold, there is one aspect of safe picnicking that might seem obvious, but it still the most important.

“The first thing we stress is hand washing, which is our method on about everything,” Lane said. “That’s priority number one as far as preventing the spread of bacteria.”

Where to Go

Whether you are stepping out on a lunch break or spending the day with family, Marietta and the surrounding area has plenty of places to sit outside and enjoy a picnic.

Though your own backyard or any public stretch of grass and trees can be suitable, there are some staple areas that people love to picnic.

“The best place we have is here is hands-down Buckeye Park,” said Susan Joyce of the City of Marietta Recreation Department. “That’s got the ponds, the recreation, and the pavilion, and it’s also the most used.”

Joyce said the pavilion at Buckeye Park is rented out by groups almost every weekend of the summer.

“A lot of people also like Lookout Park, and people rent it out and use it for picnics, reunions, showers and parties,” she said.

Christian Hudspeth, public relations and social media coordinator of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Lookout Point is also a local gem for picnics.

“Lookout Point is a picnic destination with arguably one of the best views in the county,” Hudspeth said. “It doesn’t get much better than having lunch while being able to view the majority of Marietta.”

Kage Queen, 21, of Williamstown, said it is all about the view when it comes to picnic spots.

“My favorite place to go is McDonough Wildlife Park in Vienna, because it has this huge observation area to look out at while you’re eating,” he said.

McDonough Park is one of the few places to picnic in the area where you can not only sit down and eat, but enjoy a 277-acre wildlife area with deer, turkeys and even foxes.

Heydinger said there are also some larger venues that are perfect spots if you have some extra time.

“Marietta has plenty of places and plenty of parks, but the (Wayne) National Forest is a great place people might not think of,” he said. “There you can enjoy the sun and you’re right out in nature.”

There are also nearby state parks like North Bend in West Virginia or Wolf Run north of Marietta if you can make a day trip out of your picnic.

Leith Run Recreation in Newport is also a great place with access to grills, picnic shelters and playgrounds, and the Civitan Park in Belpre and Dodge Park in Beverly offer fun park experiences.

Eating down on the Ohio River Levee or at Muskingum Park are great riverside spots too, Hudspeth said.

“Muskingum Park has all the historical monuments scattered throughout the green space and has a gazebo in case the weather takes a turn for the worse,” he said.