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These are the 6 best picnic recipes for a crowd

No matter the size of your outdoor gathering, these recipes will make everyone happy

People gathered around outdoor table at night
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Warmer weather means long days at the park, sunset boating on the lake, lazy Sundays relaxing poolside, and beautiful hilltop hikes with family and friends. And of course, delicious food. No matter how you and your loved ones care to celebrate the sunshine, eating outdoors comes with the summertime territory.

So before you stop at your local convenience store for chips and mini donuts, consider making your day outside all the more memorable by packing a homemade picnic for your party. It’s easier than you think to prepare delicious, summertime dishes for all of your friends and family, no matter the size.

So grab a big blanket, a cute wicker basket, and a crowd of your favorite people. Because things are about to get tasty.

Outdoor dining table
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What do you serve for a picnic crowd?

While there are many delicious picnic food options, it’s great to find dishes that can be scaled up for a more sizable gathering. We’ve all seen it happen. Maybe mom invites a grandparent or two to a small backyard picnic. Then Grandma invites some aunts and uncles. Uncle Dave brings along his kids. Add on a school friend or two post-soccer practice, and before you know it, you’re hosting a full-scale backyard blowout! It’s best to be prepared.

Outdoor party
David Todd McCarty/Unsplash / Unsplash

What is the most popular picnic food?

Apart from the obvious hot dogs and hamburgers, people love to snack on things like chips and dip, deviled eggs, and potato salad when entertaining outdoors. Grabbing a quick pizza to go or a sub sandwich on the run are popular options, too. But there really is something to be said for taking the time to pack your own homemade food and enjoying the efforts that went into making a special meal, no matter how casual the ambiance.

There’s a reason behind the charm of vintage picnic baskets and gingham blankets. Picnics are popular because they are a pleasure, a special time to slow down, enjoy the people we love, and share some delicious food, made all the better by being outside.

Shrimp salad
Ryan Concepcion/Unsplash

What foods are good for picnics?

If you think about traditional picnic foods, things like fried chicken will undoubtedly come to mind. And for good reason. The Colonel was onto something when he put those deliciously greasy, crispy pieces into a bucket and called it a day. Finger-lickin’ good is right. But fried chicken can be a challenge to make for a large group, and hard to transport successfully. When you have to consider things like food staying warm, or not getting soggy, it can be a real killjoy to the picnic fun.

Things that can be enjoyed cold or at room temperature work best for outdoor soirees. Salads, dips, baked goods, and sandwiches are all great options. So while we’ve maintained a lot of traditional picnic dishes on our list, there are some fun recipes to surprise your guests with as well. Furthermore, everything here is deliciously low-maintenance and easy to transport, hence the best picnic food ideas for large groups.

Summer drinks in Mason jars
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What about the drinks?

It’s important to know that no picnic is complete without some drinks that feel like warm weather and sunshine. Whatever that means for you, wonderful, but it’s probably not bottled water. So make your picnic drinks special by mixing up some delicious sangria, or other fruity cocktail or mocktail. Even some homemade lemonade will give your picnic a more special touch. Of course, a few bottles of something bubbly always go a long way as well.

Picnic basket and cheese board
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What should every picnic have?

There are no hard-and-fast rules to enjoying the sunshine, good company, and tasty cuisine outdoors on a beautiful day. But for those who like to be prepared, here are a few items that help to make a good time even more enjoyable:

  • Enough blankets for everyone to sit comfortably. No one likes itchy grass on their thighs. Consider some camping chairs for those who would prefer not to sit on the ground.
  • Mosquito repellant
  • Sunscreen
  • Bluetooth speaker for setting the mood with some tunes
  • Entertainment (such as a frisbee, kite, badminton equipment, or croquet set)
  • A cute picnic basket filled with the dishes listed below (grocery bags and plastic coolers just don’t have quite the same effect)
Macaroni salad
The Pioneer Woman

Macaroni salad recipe

(From The Pioneer Woman)

A picnic just wouldn’t be complete without some version of a cold pasta salad, and this one is certainly a crowd-pleaser. Bright, zesty, and fresh, this recipe combines all of the classic macaroni salad flavors we love, making it a perfect addition to your picnic spread.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups elbow macaroni
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • Splash of pickle juice
  • 2 whole roasted red peppers
  • 1/2 cup black olives, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup pickles, diced
  • 3 green onions, sliced

Method:

  1. In a large pot, cook macaroni according to package directions. Set aside and allow to cool.
  2. Mix together mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, milk, and pickle juice.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the macaroni and mayonnaise mixture a bit at a time, until it reaches your preferred consistency.
  4. Stir in roasted red peppers, olives, pickles, and onions.
  5. Chill for a minimum of two hours before serving.
Chicken skewers
Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash

Lemony marinated chicken skewers recipe

(From Tori Avey)

Don’t fret if your picnic site doesn’t have a grill. These can be made ahead of time and enjoyed cold. Deliciously tender, loaded with flavor, and a breeze to eat on the go, these chicken skewers are a perfect picnic choice. Just watch out for those discarded skewers when sitting down on your blanket. Ouch!

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds boneless chicken breasts or thighs
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons cilantro or parsley, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Method:

  1. Cut the chicken into 1 1/2 inch strips for skewering, and set in a glass dish.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, cilantro or parsley, crushed garlic, paprika, salt, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne pepper.
  3. Pour marinade over the chicken, making sure the chicken is coated. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator to marinate for 20 minutes. If using wooden skewers, use this time to soak them in water.
  4. Skewer the chicken, evenly divided between 6 to 8 skewers.
  5. Grill on medium heat for 10-15 minutes, until cooked through.
Watermelon salad
A Healthier Michigan/Flickr

Watermelon basil feta salad recipe

(From House of Nash Eats)

This salad just tastes like a picnic. There’s something about the combination of the watermelon and cucumber that makes you want to throw on some sunscreen and toss a frisbee around. Balanced beautifully with creamy feta and peppery basil, this salad will be one of the first things to disappear from your spread.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups watermelon, cubed
  • 1/4 red onion, sliced
  • 1 English cucumber, sliced into half circles
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, cut into strips
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, combine watermelon, onion, and cucumber.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine honey, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  3. Toss the dressing and watermelon mixture together until combined.
  4. Top with feta and basil, tossing again gently to incorporate.
Hummus and tapenade
Anestiev/Pixabay

Olive tapenade recipe

(From Culinary Hill)

Briny, zippy, earthy tapenade is one of those mouth-watering spreads quite unlike anything else. Use it as a dip for crackers or bread. Smear it on a sandwich. Jazz up your crudite platter with something a little different. It’s even amazing on pizza! Use your imagination. Just make sure you have a batch on hand at your next outdoor get-together.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups brine-cured olives, pitted
  • 1 teaspoon anchovy paste, or 2 anchovy filets, minced
  • 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. In a food processor, combine olives, anchovies, capers, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pulse until coarsely chopped.
  2. Drizzle in olive oil and continue to pulse until a paste forms. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Serve with a crusty baguette or crackers
Bruschetta
Margarita Zueva/Unsplash

Classic bruschetta recipe

(From Natasha’s Kitchen)

A summertime favorite, classic bruschetta pleases just about every palette. Fresh and bright, this tomato topping is the perfect thing to make for a crowd, pack up to go, and enjoy on a picnic blanket with a glass of wine.

Ingredients:

  • 6 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1/3 cup basil, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, divided
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 baguette, sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 1/3 cup parmesan cheese, shredded

Method:

  1. Combine 1 teaspoon of garlic and 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, mix tomatoes with the remaining garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside to marinate for 15-30 minutes
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Arrange baguette slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush the garlic-infused olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle tops with parmesan cheese and bake for 5 minutes, then broil on high heat for 1 to 2 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Serve with tomato mixture.
Lemon bars
tedeytan/Flickr

Lemon bars with shortbread crust recipe

(From Sally’s Baking Addiction)

What would a picnic be without dessert? These sunshiny lemon bars are the perfect balance of sweet and tart, with a lusciously crumbly and buttery shortbread crust. Our advice? Whip up a few batches of this sweet treat, because they’re sure to vanish before the picnic basket is even unloaded.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups flour, divided
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • Confectioners sugar for dusting (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 9-by-13 baking pan with parchment paper.
  2. To make the crust, mix melted butter, 1/2 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt. Add in flour and stir to combine. Press evenly into the prepared pan. Bake 20-22 minutes until edges are lightly browned.
  3. Remove crust from oven. Using a fork, poke holes all over the warm crust and set aside.
  4. To make the filling, sift together 2 cups of sugar and 6 tablespoons of flour.
  5. Whisk in eggs and lemon juice until thoroughly combined.
  6. Pour lemon filling over warm crust and bake 22-26 minutes until the filling is set.
  7. Once cooled, dust with confectioners sugar, if desired.

No matter how you’ll be spending your time outdoors this summer, it really is worth taking the time to make your meal extra special with any of these dishes. Kite flying and suntans are all well and good, but without great food, was it even a party at all? So get the big blanket out from the linen closet, pack your basket with care, and take pride in your tasty accomplishments. Your family and friends will appreciate your extra effort, and they needn’t know how easy it actually was to prepare such beautiful picnic foods for large groups.

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Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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