When Nancie approached me with her idea of turning her “kids in the kitchen” post into a “let’s turn picnic into a verb” idea I smiled from ear to ear. I love picnicing – the verb, not the noun. I love the prep, the location scout, the adventure of eating on a blanket. Nancie went all out for this summer picnic – with 3 recipes and tons of photos! I love these Asian inspired family picnic recipes.
Thank you, Nancie.
Now, let’s go picnic! :)
Cooking with kids has always been a pleasure for me, even before said kids were my very own. Maybe it’s because my own love of cooking (and eating!) goes back to my early elementary school days. Perhaps it’s because being in the kitchen with my grandmother made me one happy, proud, fascinated kid. Possibly it’s because during my years as a middle school social studies teacher, I found cooking to be a fun, appealing way to spend classroom time learning about culture and history, while engaging even the kids for whom the academic approach held no charm.
Whatever the reason, it’s a cooking scenario that I love. However, once those children were my very own, in my home kitchen, with so many variables, challenges, and dreams, it got harder. The mess, the variations in age, ability, inclination, and interest, the concerns around nutrition and safety, all conspired to make it, well, fraught. Jumping to the end, I will say that I didn’t give up, and that many wonderful times took place in our kitchen, and still do, with the younger one now 17 years old.
Whether you are already cooking happily with your family, or just considering whether to and if so how, I have a modest proposal for leap-frogging right over those nagging questions and universe of possibilities. Instead of saying “Come, children: let us bond together while preparing healthful food in reasonable ways!”, consider hollering out: “Hey! It’s summertime! Let’s make a picnic and go eat lunch/dinner outside!”
Is this sneaky? I think not. Nothing changes, except for the fact that any sense of ‘chore’ or ‘why’ or ‘I don’t wanna x or y…’ may very well float out the window on a happy cloud of getting down to business with picnic preparations. Why is this a good thing? Consider the picnic and its picnicky nature:
- A picnic menu is portable.
- Picnic food tends to be easy and fun to eat. (hand-held = good on multiple levels)
- Serving and eating utensils
- Picnic menus require few utensils for serving and eating
- Picnic menus can easily center on dishes light on hot ovens and stoves
- With planning, necessary knife work can be kept to a minimal
- Butter knives/table knives can be used for many tasks by young children
- Lots of jobs suit multiple ages, from basic prep to stirring to packing up the food
To get you started on a family summer picnic 1.0, here are three recipes we love. Each is served at room temperature, can be made in advance, travels well, and has appeal for multiple ages. They’re also vegetarian dishes; we aren’t vegetarian, but we love great food and can always benefit from putting fruits and vegetables on our menu. Adding protein is simple: pick up or cook up some chicken wings or drumsticks; or add sandwiches. Nothing beats a round of Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwiches this time of year, and if you make extra bacon for breakfast and slice up and prep lettuce leaves, sandwich making is a hoot for all ages of kids, with plenty to do and ownership for even youngest ones to contribute to the feast.
Here’s our menu, with notes for maximizing the kid-friendly aspects:
Boil the eggs ahead of time and place in cold water to help them cool down quickly. Elementary school aged kids can help with peeling them, cutting peeled eggs in half scooping out yolks; mashing, mixing, stuffing and packing up the eggs. We put them into a shallow container, close together, with a bed of shredded lettuce on the bottom to give them a little traction for the travel time.
Boil the pasta ahead of time, drain it well. and let it cool just a little. Very warm is ideal.
While the water heats up, kids help make the dressing and whisk or stir with fork. They will be crackerjack noodle tossers, using either salad fork and spoon or two forks or spring loaded tongs for older kids. Eating with chopsticks is something many kids enjoy, and picnic prep and picnic time proper are perfect times to practice this art, so bring along some extra pairs.
Cucumber pickles, Asian style
For peeling the cucumbers, you’ll need an older kid or an adult (you!) to get things started. A vegetable peeler would be first choice, and using a vegetable peeler is something I have always loved. It’s a good intermediate step in learning knife skills for older kids, but paring knives and chef’s knives handled by appropriate-aged cooks work fine too. Once the cucumber is peeled, any age kid can cut it up using butter knives.
Fresh fruit, particularly of the messy-eating kind
You’re outside, you’re all wearing taking-care-of-funny-business clothing, and you’ll find a dazzling abundance of sweet, ripe fresh fruits in farmer’s markets, roadside stands, and at the supermarket. My short list includes watermelon, cantaloupe, and peaches. Seed-spitting contests are encouraged as proper picnic behaviour, so look for the old-school watermelons with their legacies still in place. You can take it from here, fruit-wise, as long as you promise not to reference the healthiness and desirability from a nutritional standpoint of eating these fruits.
Other excellent picnic foods to consider:
- Fruit salad
- Pasta salad
- Waldorf salad
- Hard-boiled eggs (bring salt and pepper for sprinkling)
- Celery, sweet pepper strips, and cucumber spears with honey mustard or ranch dip
- Fresh fruit chunks with yogurt dip
- Apples with peanut butter and raisins
Picnic-cooking sessions bring kids into cooking in a low-key way and the rewards are as numerous as the tenacious ants you and your culinary crew will most likely encounter during the course of your picnic adventures. You’ll be educating your young cooks on worthy subjects including the importance of prep work; sharing; teamwork; food safety; cooking skills; and creating fun and memories without screens, mice, malls, or wads of cash/swipes of plastic. That all adds up to cause for celebration, and here’s to celebration picnics, all summer long!
- 3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons very hot water (pasta cooking water works fine)
- 2 teaspoons vinegar, such as white, red or white wine, or apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 8 ounces dried spaghetti or linguine
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. While you wait, make the sauce. In a medium bowl large enough to toss the cooked noodles with the sauce, combine the peanut butter, soy sauce, hot water, vinegar, sugar, and salt. Stir well to combine into an evenly mixed, thick sauce. It may separate and that’s fine; keep mixing and stirring. It will not be satiny smooth; evenly combined is fine.
- When the water comes to a boil, drop in the noodles and cook until tender but still firm, stirring now and again to separate them and help them cook evenly, 8 to 10 minutes for spaghetti or linguine. (Pull out strands to test them, using the bite test; kids can vote on this decision...)
- When the noodles are tender but still firm, drain well and place them in the bowl of peanut sauce. Toss well to coat the strands evenly. Add a little more hot water if needed to soften the noodles and distribute the sauce.
- Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
- 8 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Put the eggs in a medium saucepan and add cold water to cover them. Place over high heat and bring to a lively boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, enough to keep the eggs at a simmer, and cook for 8 minutes.
- Remove from the heat, drain, and add cold water to cover. Let stand until cool enough to handle. (Add some ice cubes to the cooling water if you are in a hurry.
- Meanwhile, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Stir with a fork and scrape with a spatula to combine the seasonings well.
- Peel the eggs, tapping the ends on the counter to crack the shells well, and pulling away the shells. Don’t worry about bits of shell; simply rinse the peeled eggs once you finish, to remove any of these bits.
- Cut the eggs lengthwise in half. Use a butter knife, so that kids can handle this task, or observe the way to do so when they are old enough to do so. Scoop out the yolks and add them to the medium bowl holding the mayonnaise mixture. Set the whites aside on a platter plate large enough to hold the deviled eggs.
- Using a fork and a spatula, mash the egg yolks and mayonnaise mixture together, scraping the bowl to combine everything well. Using a table knife or butter knife, stuff each egg-white half with about a tablespoon of the egg yolk mixture, dividing it up evenly among the eggs. Round and smooth the tops of the stuffed eggs. Cover and chill until shortly before serving time.
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 large cucumber or 3 or 4 small ones ( about 12 oz)
- 1/4 cup red onions, coarsely chopped
- In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water, sugar, and salt and boil gently over medium heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar and salt. After about 2 minutes, when the syrup is clear and slightly thickened, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- Peel the cucumber and slice lengthwise in quarters. (You can remove the seeds if you want to.) Slice these strips into 1-inch chunks.
- In a bowl, combine the cucumbers, cooled vinegar mixture, onion, and cilantro and mix well. Cover and chill until serving time. If you prefer crisp cucumbers, remove from the dressing after about 1 hour; or combine dressing and cucumber chunks shortly before serving. Use a slotted spoon to transfer cucumbers to a serving bowl or to a container for transporting to your picnic!