Dinnertime Picnics on the Cheap

July 10, 2013

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, you can make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Gabriella helps you pack a picnic basket.  

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One of the best things about summer is finally being able to dine al fresco. Not so great? The price tag that comes with eating at restaurants every night to avoid your stuffy apartment.

For those of us who aren't lucky enough to have sprawling patios or backyards, it's all we can do to grab a picnic blanket, gather a feast, and call all our friends to meet up in the nearest park.

Here's how to have the perfect outdoor meal, on the cheap. Or turn it into a potluck and have each of your guests bring one of these essentials:


Lemon White Bean Dip
Everyone likes an excuse to get snacky, so start out with dips -- think Lemony White Bean DipClassic Guacamole, or Bagna Cauda. Serve them with seasonal crudités (radishes! snap peas! carrots!) or a crusty baugette; if you're feeling ambitious, try these homemade tortilla chips


Stay cool all night with Mint Limeade or Raspberry Lime Rickeys. Need something a little stronger with dinner? We hear you -- check out last week's picks for frugal cocktails or consider breaking into these picnic wines.


Picnic salads need to be a little sturdier than the usual -- you don't want to pre-dress delicate greens and have them wilt by the time you sit down to eat. Grain salads are a good bet: think Grilled Corn and Barley Salad or Summer Farro Salad (you can forgo the olives to save money if need be). Bean salads also hold up well, so try this White Bean Salad for an especially summery take on legumes. Potato salad is another route, though it's best to go with something that's not mayonaise-based, like this version that features plenty of fresh herbs.

More: Beans should be a staple in any kitchen, broke or otherwise. Here are 7 ways to use them. 

Portable Frittatas 

Frittatas are my favorite easy dinner. They hold up as a main dish, use leftover produce, are endlessly variable, and stay healthy without feeling too virtuous. To make them portable for a picnic, I like to cook mine in muffin tins. My current favorite combination is onion, red pepper, zucchini -- all diced as small as possible -- with fresh goat cheese. Let your imagination and palate run wild -- it's nearly impossible to screw up a frittata.


Pan Bagnat
If you're out of eggs or don't feel like cooking in a sweltering kitchen, then a picnic is the perfect excuse to pile odds and ends between two pieces of good bread and call it dinner. Merrill's Tomato Sandwich takes all of five minutes to make and highlights some of summer's best produce. The Pan Bagnat is a dressed-up take on the tuna sandwich, but don't fret if you don't have olives or artichoke hearts in your pantry -- it's just as delicious without them. Gena can guide you in thinking outside the wrap, but if you can't make her cashew spread, just work with the hummus and vegetables you've already prepped for your appetizer.


This is, of course, a picnic non-negotiable.


Dark Chocolate Coconut Bites
The best thing about a picnic is having every course of your meal spread out right in front of you -- it's entirely acceptable to start with a few bites of dessert, nibble on your sandwich, then work your way right back to the sweet stuff. If you're swamped on the day of, whip up a batch of these no-bake Dark Chocolate & Coconut Bites. If you have a little more time, go for these Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Cookies. But if you're making dessert the night before, there's absolutely no excuse to not try your hand at Slab Pie. It's pie that you're supposed to eat with your hands. Need I say more?

Tell us: what's a must-have for your picnic basket?

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1 Comment

savorthis July 11, 2013
It is blazing hot here and thanks to a replaced sewer line, our yard is a sad field of dirt. (My daughter actually tries to get me to pull over on the way home so she can put her feet in someone else's grass). So we pack dinner picnics and head to the Botanic Gardens at least a couple nights a week. Last night was a wheat berry salad with sugarsnaps, roasted tomatoes, lemon zest and fresh mozzarella with gilled chicken and a pile of cherries. Last time was a version of our BLT salmon salad. And they even let you bring wine or it is perfect picnic spot.