Perfect your al fresco dining with these picnic basket essentials

I have a little bit of an obsession with picnic baskets. I paw over them in thrift and antique stores, check out new and old styles online, and even own a basket purse that very closely resembles one. I’ve limited myself to owning only one true picnic basket (complete with a latch, fabric lining and straps to hold things in place). Beyond that I’ve got a couple baskets with hamper-style tops that probably still count, and somewhere I’ve got a travelling martini basket that holds a full-size bottle of vodka. Because, martinis.

As spring is nodding its head in our direction, my daughter has requested that we pack up our gear for a picnic on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I can’t think of anywhere more fun or picturesque to picnic on a warm day. Plus, a spring picnic means the absence of some of the bugs that will dive bomb us later in the year. Flies are my nemesis.

Al fresco dining, circa 1986

I grew up on a farm outside of a tiny town in southeast Kansas (pop. 715). As a teenager, my best friends and I loved to picnic. We also loved to visit Kansas City and we’d feel so cosmopolitan during our visits. We would go to the Country Club Plaza, and hit The Better Cheddar and a French bakery and patisserie that sadly no longer exists.

We’d put a towel in a basket, add some Better Cheddar cheese, a baguette, a couple of Napoleons to share, and top it off with a bottle of sparkling grape juice. We’d take our “gourmet” meal and sit under the tall trees that then lined Brush Creek along the Plaza. I was in heaven. We felt like we were straight out the pages of Elegant Teenager magazine. Although I love the restyled creek and the amazing activities that with come it (WaterFire? Heck yeah!), I still feel sadness remembering when those gorgeous trees came down.

Planning a personalized yet perfect picnic

When planning a picnic, ask yourself a few questions. Are you willing to put up with a little wind? Are you interested in picturesque serving gear or into function or form? How long will the food be packed before you get a chance to eat it? Food poisoning is definitely not fun, but I also dislike the idea of keeping everything in a cooler, or transferring dripping items from an ice chest to a basket just to walk a few feet across a lawn. I want everything in the basket when I leave the house or it’s just no fun for me, so packing simple food that isn’t dependent on constant refrigeration is a must. Ultimately, it’s what makes you comfortable and satisfied. A picnic should be fun and stress-free.

Sitting on the ground without getting it ground in

We think it’s more fun to sit on the ground despite the protests of my back, but I hate ruining a good tablecloth with mud and grass. I use an oilcloth tablecloth as a ground cover, then top it with an old quilt. This quilt has graced numerous Easter tables because it features fresh spring colors. It’s frayed and worn and still beautiful, but not so precious I’m worried about spills. And if a mark is left behind, so be it.

What I like about using a quilt or blanket is that the wind isn’t as much of a problem because of the heft of the material. In the past I sewed lead fishing weights onto the edges of a tablecloth (just like the hems of Royal ladies’ skirts) but once my kids made the scene I was obsessed with the notion of someone swallowing a lead weight and gave that practice the boot.

Individually awesome

I’m “one of those,” so I don’t like to use plastic to store or pack food. The chicken will go in a glass-lidded container, and everything else in individually portioned mason jars with lids. Not only does it prevent spills, but it also shuts down any of those, “Mom, he got more than me!” moments that drive me completely insane.

The resurgence of mason jars (love them or hate them, they are sturdy, eco-friendly and incredibly useful) makes packing food in style quite simple. Furthermore, the lids make packing liquids worry-free.

The dip is placed in the bottom of the jars, with the crudités on end. So cute. Thanks, Pinterest. As for the lemonade, I’ll make it the night before and pop the jars in the freezer. They’ll melt over time but still be ice-cold for lunch.

For a picnic with some of my girlfriends, I’d swap out the lemonade for a sweet sangria and a bottle of chilled white wine.

Many picnic baskets come with plastic table wear, but I replaced mine with granitewear plates and bowls. You’ve probably seen the blue ones in the camping section of your store, but years ago I was lucky enough to find white plates with a fish motif which are still in use today. They chip and show signs of wear but that’s the beauty for me.

I’m in the market for a speckled vintage granite-ware pitcher but I haven’t come across a deal on one yet. And that my friend, will be for the flowers. Because what’s a picnic without flowers as a centerpiece? Someone might be standing by waiting to put us in a magazine.

A Meal Suitable for Kids and Kids-At-Heart

Here’s what’s on the menu for our very kid-friendly picnic:

• Homemade fusilli bucati corti pasta salad (because corkscrew pasta is more fun)

• Fresh strawberries sprinkled with raw sugar and topped with homemade whipped cream

• Julienned crudités in dill dressing

• Fresh lemonade

• Garlic and soy sauce-roasted chicken legs.

To prepare: 1) Place fresh skinless chicken legs in a large bowl. Add several crushed cloves of garlic; 5-6 green onions, chopped; and salt and pepper to taste. If you like a bit of spice, add a couple dashes of red pepper flakes.

2) Cover with soy sauce. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or as least four hours), stirring periodically to ensure all the legs are soaking in the marinade.

3) Preheat the oven to 450. Place legs on a sheet pan and bake for 45 minutes or until the meat separates from the bone.