Picnics are synonymous with the outdoors, and it’s certainly a pleasure to eat at the beach, in the forest, or in a park, but it’s not always possible. Even if you’re a fan of al fresco fall meals and winter picnics, sometimes the weather won’t cooperate—or maybe the urge to picnic comes on a busy weeknight when you don’t have a ton of time to plan. The solution is to picnic inside. It’s more fun than a formal dinner, and just as perfect for feeding a crowd of friends and family as it is ideal for a romantic date night option. And kids love it just as much as adults. Bonus: no bugs or sunburns to worry about! So here’s how to pull off the perfect picnic indoors.
Bring Out Your Blanket
You can’t have a picnic without a blanket, but when you’re inside, you don’t have to worry about damp ground or dirt, so there’s no need to spread out a dedicated outdoor blanket (like this plaid fleece number with a water-resistant backing). If you have one that’s attractive, by all means, use it! Otherwise, lay out a quilt or throw blanket (or several), the prettiest you have—unless it’s a priceless heirloom you might not be able to restore to pristine condition if anything gets dropped on it. If you have a nice area rug, you can use that instead; move it out from under your furniture and into another room if need be. It’s only temporary.
If you want a bit more cushioning, pile up your throw pillows—or if you don’t have those, take the cushions off the couch and use them on the floor. It’s just more fun to be close to the ground, as long as it isn’t painful. And since you will be low-down, you may want to temporarily sequester any pets that might be tempted to steal some of your spread. If you’d like an elevated dining surface but your coffee table’s a bit too high, press a foot stool, low bench, or overturned bin, crate, or sturdy box into service. Drape a piece of fabric (like a patterned scarf or dish towel) over it if it needs to be gussied up. Of course, a lidded picnic basket also works as a little table too.
Set the Scene
Cluster any potted plants you have around the dining area, whatever section of the floor that is. If you don’t have any already inside, now’s a good time to buy at least one hardy plant you virtually cannot kill, no matter how un-green your thumb. Several of these plants have the benefit of purifying the air inside your home as well; just be sure they’re not toxic to pets if you have cats or dogs that tend to chomp on anything green. You can always buy flowers for the occasion too, or gather them from your garden. Try working in some sculptural tree branches or twigs for an even more back-to-nature effect; you can gather those wherever they’ve fallen, as long as they’re clean and free of bugs (unless you want to get really authentic with your outdoors-indoors experience).
You can even raid the produce aisle for leafy decor; many bushy and frilly herbs, voluminous greens like chard, and carrot tops and fennel fronds make lovely bouquets, and are affordable enough that you can buy bunches to surround your dining area—plus, you can eat the rest of the plants, which is a great (and cost-effective) benefit. If you don’t have vases, put them out grouped in clear glasses and jars, even tied into big bundles and suspended on string. (And if the greens themselves aren’t too wilted after your picnic, turn them into pesto, toss them into salads, or saute them with other veggies.)
If you own any art with a natural vibe, move that into the area; you can just prop paintings and framed posters against a wall, since you’ll be on the same level as the art. If you’re into the idea, you can put on an unobtrusive background soundtrack of nature sounds like birdsong, crickets, or peeping frogs; you can find lots of surprisingly non-cheesy options on YouTube and play them from a laptop, then still have your phone free for actual music if you want that too.
And for a true multi-sensory experience, as long as it’s not too heavily scented or too close to the food (since you don’t want it to affect the flavors, which are intimately linked to aromas), you can also light candles with subtle natural scents. That makes for appropriately atmospheric lighting if you’re picnicking à deux on a romantic evening, too.
Choose Suitable Food
An abundant cheese plate with plenty of fruit, nuts, olives, and other extras like artisanal crackers, interesting condiments, and charcuterie, is always a great choice, but you can also go with more substantial and composed dishes if you have the time and inclination. It’s a good idea to stick to food you can eat with your fingers, and smaller bites that are good at room temperature mean you can artfully arrange them and then laze about at your leisure, while nibbling and grazing over the course of an hour or two—or more. It should be a relaxed and flexible kind of situation.
Skewers are great—try our Prosciutto-Wrapped Shrimp with Smoked Paprika. Mini tarts (like our Bacon-Cheddar Mini Quiches), composed toasts like bruschetta or crostini (with any wet toppings in a separate bowl for à la minute assembly, in order to avoid soggy bread), and other small bites (like Marinated Bocconcini or Savory Cheese Cookies with Pepper and Gin) also work really well. Basically, anything that you would normally pack for a picnic is a perfect choice for an indoor spread too—but if you’d rather roast a chicken and serve it on the floor, go for it.
Picking foods you can make ahead, however, also means you won’t be rushed when it’s time to assemble everything, which can be especially nice. Along the same line with regard to libations, if you want to make mixed drinks, choose batch cocktails and keep a pitcher near your spread so you can top off your glasses as needed without going back to the bar (or kitchen). Think sangria or Pimm’s Cups, but there are lots of other options too. Lemonade is great if you don’t want booze (yet those who do can doctor their own glasses). If you’re hosting an indoors winter picnic, make warm Crock Pot cocktails.
Dessert should definitely be included too, whether it’s a bar of extra high-quality chocolate, pastries picked up from a local bakery, or homemade bar cookies you baked beforehand—even individual fruit crisps or fancy French puddings (aka pots de crème) made in single-serving jars.
That said, don’t feel the need to stick to lunch and dinner, either. An indoor picnic is also a fun brunch option—keep coffee hot in a Thermos, and set out an array of pastries, granola, yogurt, and fruit. Check out Shelly Westerhausen‘s book “Platters and Boards” for more inspiration when it comes to curating generous, beautiful, and delicious spreads for all occasions, whether you’re taking them outside or staying in.
Serve It with Style
You don’t have to actually pack everything into a basket, but if you happen to own a cute vintage one, or something along those lines—even a weathered wooden crate or oversized woven rattan bag—it can be kind of cute to use it, at least for toting plates and glasses to the scene of the meal. Since you don’t need to worry about transporting food too far, ditch the Tupperware for pretty platters and bowls instead. Invest in nice cloth napkins if you don’t already own some, and if you need additional plates and utensils for your food, don’t use paper and plastic. For bite-size bits, upgrade to fancy toothpicks too. Even casual indoor picnics can be elegant—maybe even more so than the traditional outdoor variety, since the logistics are so much easier. So give it a try, rain or shine, and you may never go back to the dining table (or picnic bench in the park) again.
Related Video: How to Bake Cakes in a Jar
Header image courtesy of Ann Street Studio.