How to Plan the Perfect Summer Picnic for Less

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.

Use our tips to plan the perfect summer picnic on a budget. Whether you’re planning to do a backyard picnic for the family or putting together a picnic in the park for you and your best friends, it doesn’t have to be expensive.

With a little forethought (and our summer picnic checklist), it’s easy to pull together the makings for a cheap picnic from supplies you already own. We’ve also included links to popular picnic food recipes for make-ahead dishes that travel well.

What you need for the perfect summer picnic

Couple having a picnic
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Load your picnic into any large bag or basket. A large paper bag with handles, a reusable grocery bag, or a large beach tote will do.

Make a portable cooler from a cardboard box lined with a plastic garbage bag. Load cold food into the cooler and place ice packs on top for maximum chilling effect.

For ice packs, fill one or more plastic or metal water bottles and freeze them solid (at least 24 hours). Be sure to leave plenty of space at the top, because water expands as it freezes. These water bottles can double as a source of drinking water for the ride home. Alternatively, use well-rinsed milk cartons or zipper bags to create ice packs.

Bring a ground cover, such as a plastic tarp or heavy blanket. Even seemingly dry locations can become damp after an hour or two of sitting. A waterproof picnic blanket is handy for all your outdoor events; look for blankets that roll or zip up and have a handle for easy carrying. Mexican blankets make for a festive touch or top your utilitarian cover with a pretty tablecloth for a festive look.

Include sun and wind protection as needed, including sun hats, sunglasses, and picnic umbrellas.

Pack two sets of cleaning cloths or paper towels. Prepare one wet set by soaking the cloths or towels in soapy water and wringing them out before sealing them in a zipper-style bag. Leave the other set of towels dry and pack them in a separate bag.

Use your everyday kitchenware. Save money on disposables by using your cloth napkins and stainless flatware. Buy inexpensive paper plates and cups, or bring real plates and glasses, as long as you pack them carefully to avoid breakage. (Wrap breakables in the napkins or extra dish towels.) Be sure to monitor trash disposal to avoid tossing out your good stuff.

Don’t forget a garbage bag, especially in out-of-the-way locations without trash receptacles. In the wilderness, remember to take only photographs and memories; leave nothing but footprints.

How to make a delicious picnic meal on the cheap

Family having a picnic
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Stumped for cheap picnic recipes? We’ve got plenty of tips and ideas for the entire picnic meal, from appetizers to mains and desserts.

Cheap picnic food ideas

lunch or dinner
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If you want classic picnic fare but need to minimize the use of expensive meats, you can cut your budget while keeping all the flavor. Make your picnic food from the cheapest meat choices, such as a whole roast chicken, served cold; homemade ground beef salami; or canned tuna (made into tuna salad mixed with chopped celery, onion, pickle, and mayonnaise).

For a cheaper solution, use meat or fish in a supporting role, rather than as the main attraction. Sandwiches stuffed with meat and veggies are delicious and affordable. Try these recipes:

You can also include less expensive protein sources such as eggs and legumes. Deviled eggs are always a hit, and a dozen doesn’t cost that much. Try these perfect picnic recipes:

Cheap picnic appetizer ideas

Salsa and tortilla chips
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Grains, potatoes, nuts, and locally grown seasonal produce are less expensive than meat and pack plenty of flavor. For your cheap picnic, go heavy on the apps and sides to get the most bang from your budget.

When choosing salad recipes, use ones that include a homemade dressing, which saves you scads of money over bottled dressings.

Here are a few picnic food ideas for delicious, do-ahead appetizers and vegetable salads using seasonal summer produce and healthy grains and legumes. These popular recipes are cheap and easy to make, transport, and enjoy:

Cheap picnic dessert ideas

Cookies
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For dessert, bake something easy from scratch. Look for sturdy, packable picnic treats, like brownies, bars or loaves of sweet quick breads. Try these favorite picnic dessert ideas:

Fresh fruit salad is a fabulous summer picnic dessert that doesn’t require a recipe. It’s easy to make with 6 to 8 cups of any or all of the following fruits: melon chunks (honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, or a combination), strawberries (whole or halves), blueberries, seedless grapes, and bananas. Summer fruit needs only a simple dressing of freshly grated zest and the juice squeezed from one fresh lemon.

For extra sweetness, toss the fruit with 6 to 8 ounces of strawberry or lemon yogurt. And another tip: To prevent bananas from browning, carry the unpeeled fruit to the picnic and slice it into the salad just before serving.

Cheap picnic drink ideas

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For beverages, skip the soft drinks and choose something appropriate for warm weather, such as iced tea or lemonade in a sealed water bottle or jug. Freeze some of the beverages in ice cube trays and use them to keep the beverage cold without diluting it.

If there’s a designated driver, you may want to indulge in a growler of beer or a jug of inexpensive, chilled white or rosé wine for the other guests. Check your picnic location’s rules on glass and drinking alcohol in public; some parks ban beverages in glass bottles. In that case, look for beer in cans and boxed wine, many of which are cheaper than the bottled version anyway.

Whichever beverages you plan, it’s a good idea to bring some plain drinking water along. Don’t buy gallons in plastic jugs at the store. Fill your own pitchers or reusable beverage dispenser for a cheaper and more Earth-friendly option.

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