Planning the Perfect Picnic
Make this picnic season your best one yet.
Nothing says “summer fun” quite like an outdoor picnic. Catering outdoors, however, comes with a unique set of challenges that can quickly transform the best-laid plans into a worst-case scenario. As caterers and event planners, we must anticipate and carefully prepare for these challenges, turning them into unique opportunities for a successful summer bash.
As founder of Picnic People in San Diego, CA, I’ve been planning and catering outdoor picnics for three decades (in fact, our family-owned business is celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer). Over the years, our team has faced every kind of catering challenge imaginable, from severe weather to last-minute RSVPs from a few thousand additional guests. Based on those experiences, here are my top “picnic pointers.”
Keep it Hot & Cold
One of the greatest challenges a caterer can face when transporting food to an outdoor location is holding the temperature of a dish. Even when using a hotbox or insulated container, food can rapidly cool during transport.
To keep hot food hot, wrap red bricks in a heavy-duty aluminum foil and heat them up in the oven. Using potholders, carefully place the heated bricks inside your portable container and seal it. The bricks will hold high temperatures of heat for a few hours, insuring that food is piping hot upon serving.
As for cold food, if you’ve ever had a soggy salad that’s been sitting out in the sun, you know that it’s a surefire appetite killer. In lieu of traditional salad containers, try a “double bowl” method for a simple cooling effect. Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and water and then place a smaller bowl inside of it to hold the salad. For an enhanced visual, try garnishing the larger bowl with kale. Kale leaves will not wilt and will give your bowl a fresh summer look.
Barbecued chicken is a staple of any summer picnic, but can be a difficult dish to cater. The related challenges include undercooking, overcooking and keeping raw meat isolated to avoid bacteria transfer.
To avoid all such problems, I recommend “par-cooking” your chickens before leaving your kitchen. Pre-season and bake the chickens until they are 80 percent cooked and at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Quickly chill them down and send them out cold in a sealed cooler.
On site, sauce the chickens and immediately place on the grill. This method will allow for faster cooking time and will create an easy to grill meat that any novice cook can barbecue to perfection.
Get the Grill Running
You can avoid stopping to re-light your grill in the middle of a picnic with the three-bag charcoal system. Begin by lining your grills with a heavy-duty aluminum foil. Put three bags of hot coal charcoal into the grill, placing two bags in the middle and one off to the side. As the center coals burn off, simply pull fresh coals from the third bag to feed the heart of the fire.
This method creates a solid, equal temperature grill fire that lasts for at least two hours, without having to lift the grill top. When grilling is complete, wrap the charcoals in the aluminum foil liner for an easy, mess-free disposal.
Equal Parts Food & Fun
Finally, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not all about the food; it’s also about the fun. Create fun and exciting experiences that will really distinguish your picnic from the get-go. Try choosing a theme for your picnic that takes into account the age of your guests, location and the weather. The best picnics always offer a special themed element, such as having a steel drum band meet and greet guests during a tropical picnic.
Entertainment and activities encourage guests to interact and let down their guard, ultimately enhancing their experience. Whether it’s music, professional entertainers or classic picnic games and activities, these add-ons make a lasting impression.
Lisa Richards is president and owner of H Events of San Diego, CA, one of the most unique and successful independent caterers in the US. H is a model for diverse catering companies nationwide, with five distinct brands serving varying niches in the San Diego market. Lisa is also a consultant with the Catersource Consulting Unit.