They say life's a picnic.
Or, at least, it can be if you heed our advice and fill up that basket, toss in a favorite quilt or vintage throw and head for the outdoors. Or to the parking lot of your favorite football stadium.
Picnicking is a great way to relax, nosh on some terrific eats and enjoy a sun-filled afternoon lunch or early dinner. Picnics can be about the food, the venue, the company — or all three. The best picnics, of course, are the simplest.
With that notion in mind, here are some tips to help you plan the perfect picnic. And unless you're planning a picnic for a crowd, there is no need to spend days cooking.
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■ Keep it simple. For picnic accessories, check big-box retailers and other stores that sell outdoor goods. Chances are, a lot of it is on sale or marked down for the season.
■ Pick the right basket or tote. Choose your food-toting vessel wisely. Wicker picnic baskets that come with their own set of plates and utensils are fine — even nostalgic.
■ Wicker is lightweight, so it's easy to carry. Some wicker baskets now have an insulated compartment for keeping foods at the right temperature. Newer fabric picnic baskets also are lightweight, come in several colors and have insulated pockets for cold packs.
But either way, make sure you have storage space.
"It's really important to have enough picnic bags," says Annie Bell, author of The Picnic Cookbook (Kyle Books, $19.95). "You need one for your drinks and one for your food."
■ Find the right blanket or throw. You also can use comfortable lightweight blankets, a quilt, a sheet and even towels or rugs.
■ Decide on the dishes and utensils. When it comes to dishware and glassware: Again, think lightweight because you'll have to lug them to your picnic spot. Good options are lightweight acrylic or colorful melamine dishes, bamboo or paper.
A sharp folding knife to cut a piece of cheese or salami is a good idea, too.
■ Pack the right foods. When deciding on a menu, stick to hand-held foods and ones that travel well. Leftover cooked chicken, turkey or beef make terrific sandwiches. Or buy pre-made sandwiches or the components to make them on site. Finger foods like sliced cheeses, smoked salmon, kalamata olives, sliced salami, fruit and raw vegetables are easy and can be shared easily. Antipasto salads are fine, but choose ones with a vinaigrette because they hold better than those with a creamy dressing. Pack the vinaigrette on the side, and don't forget the baguette.
■ Contain it all properly. There's no shortage of plastic storage containers on store shelves. Some have sections for packing the dressing separate from salads so the lettuce doesn't get wilted. Others can separate condiments from the sandwich.
But in her book, Bell advises against using plastic storage containers as serving dishes, or "the most special picnic can end up looking like a Tupperware party."
Try packing food and drinks in canning jars. They fit well in baskets and travel easily.
Marinated summer vegetables
3 summer squash or zucchini (about 1 pound), sliced on a diagonal about ½ -inch thick and cut in half if larger in diameter
3 red, orange or yellow bell peppers, cut into 1-inch strips
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Freshly ground pepper
2 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar
4 sprigs fresh oregano
Preheat oven to 425 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds of oven. Place squash and peppers on separate baking sheets. Drizzle each sheet of vegetables with ½ tablespoon oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Spread out in a single layer, turning peppers skin side up.
Roast peppers on upper rack and squash on lower rack, turning squash once, until just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool slightly; remove skins from peppers.
In a small bowl, whisk garlic, sherry and remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper. Add vegetables and oregano; toss to coat. Cover and let sit at least 1 hour.
Vegetables may be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill; bring to room temperature before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Adapted from Bonappetit.com.
Nutritional information: 100 calories, 10 g. fat, 4 g. carbohydrates, 2 g. protein, 85 mg. sodium, 0 mg. cholesterol, 1 g. fiber. Look for jarred olive salad near the deli department at some stores. You may make these several hours in advance. The idea is that the roasted tomatoes and olive salad become a vinaigrette of sorts for these sandwiches.
Rotisserie chicken muffaletta-style sandwiches
3 small (10- to 12-inch) baguettes
1 jar (16 ounces) Italian olive salad
Slow-roasted tomatoes (see note)
4 to 5 cups cooked and shredded rotisserie chicken
6 slices provolone or favorite cheese
3 cups loosely packed arugula
Slice baguettes horizontally almost in half. Scoop out some of the crumb from bottom half. Add about one-third of the olive salad on the bottom half of each baguette. Top each with some roasted tomatoes, chicken, cheese and about 1 cup arugula. Cut each sandwich in half, wrap in parchment paper and secure with kitchen twine.
Note: To make slow- roasted tomatoes, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a sided baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut 4 cups cherry or grape tomatoes in half and place cut side up in a single layer on baking sheet. Place 4 garlic cloves, with skin on, but crushed, in between tomatoes. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, about 1 teaspoon sugar and fresh thyme leaves. Bake until they are semi-dry and somewhat shriveled, about 30 minutes. They should be tender and their flavor concentrated. Remove from oven, transfer to a bowl with the pan juices and let cool before using. Makes 6 servings.
Nutritional information per serving: 443 calories, 24 g. fat, 14 g. carbohydrates, 40 g. protein, 937 mg. sodium, 114 mg. cholesterol, 2 g. fiber.
Grilled pound cake with grilled peaches and raspberry sauce
1 store-bought pound cake, cut into ¾-inch slices
3 to 4 tablespoons melted butter
3 peaches, cut in half and pitted
Store-bought raspberry sauce, or homemade
Preheat oven to medium heat. Once hot, oil the grates and heat 5 minutes. Brush both sides of pound cake with melted butter and brush cut sides of peaches with melted butter. Grill pound cake on both sides until you get nice grill marks, about 3 minutes for each side. Grill peaches, cut side down until you get nice grill marks. Remove from grill and cool. Slice peaches, pack them, the pound cake slices and the sauce separately. To serve, place some peach slices on the pound cake and drizzle with raspberry sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Nutritional information per serving: 351 calories, 17 g. fat, 48 g. carbohydrates, 4 g. protein, 273 mg. sodium, 141 mg. cholesterol, 1 g. fiber.
Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is paramount when serving food outdoors. Here are some things to remember:
■ Bacteria that can lead to food-borne illness can pose a threat when food is left out in temperatures of 40 degrees to 140 degrees for more than 2 hours (1 hour if it's hotter than 90 degrees).
■ Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees or cooler until you're ready to serve them. Keep them in a cooler packed with ice or ice packs. To serve, place foods on ice that's set in a shallow container or on ice packs. Replenish ice as needed. Serve food within the time frame mentioned above.
■ Hot food brought to a picnic needs to stay hot until ready to serve. That means keeping it at or above 140 degrees, according to www.fda.gov. Keep it well-wrapped and in an insulated container.
■ Bring lots of utensils to prevent cross-contamination.