The Best Picnic Foods That Won’t Spoil in Warm Weather

Easy picnic foods that won’t spoil in heat

There is something magical about eating outdoors whether at the beach, on a picnic blanket, camping or in your own backyard. Dining al fresco is an American pastime but as temperatures rise, so does the risk of food safety. Hot temperatures provide the optimal environment for potentially dangerous bacteria to grow and multiple.

Outdoor dining requires a few simple rules and attention to detail to plan the right menu and keep food safe from contamination. Keep these tips in mind for a safe and enjoyable picnic experience:

Prioritize safety.

Start with food at the proper temperature. Don’t rely on the cooler to chill or heat your foods. Cold foods should be 40 degrees F or below, and hot foods 140 degrees F or above before placing into the cooler.

“Starting with room temperature or hot food could result in your food never getting to a safe temperature for storage and transport,” says Tracey Brigman, associate director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation at University of Georgia. Brigman recommends placing an appliance thermometer in your cooler to monitor temperatures.

Help your cooler stay cold by chilling it with ice before packing the food. Likewise, for hot food, heat the insulated cooler with very hot water to heat the cavity before draining and filling with hot foods.

Food that needs to be kept hot or cold (such as potato or tuna salad) shouldn’t be left outside of the coolers for more than two hours, or one hour when the temperature is 90 degrees or above.

Foods that aren’t properly cooled are at risk of developing bacteria, which can cause food poisoning.

Pack your cooler correctly.

Use separate coolers for hot food, cold food and drinks. Pack cold coolers with plenty of ice, frozen water bottles, a block of ice and/or ice packs. Other than in the drink cooler, pack ice in zippered bags to prevent water leakage.

Hot food can be placed in insulated bags and containers, such as a thermos. Add heated gel packs to the cooler and wrap food tightly in aluminum foil to help keep hot picnic foods at safe temperatures.

Have one cooler just for drinks, designed for frequent opening and closing.

Place raw poultry or meat, to be grilled, in zippered bags layered on the bottom of the cold cooler to avoid any potential leaking onto other foods. Next, place fruits, vegetables and grains, leaving the top space for more delicate items.

“Packing a cooler correctly is essential to food safety,” says Brigman. A fully packed cooler will maintain its temperatures longer than one that is partially filled.

Keep everything clean.

Avoid cross contamination. Use separate cutting boards, knives, serving utensils and plates for raw and cooked foods. Discard marinades used for raw meats.

“It is essential that foods are handled properly prior to cooking because cooking is not a sure thing to prevent food borne illness if food was mishandled before cooking,” warns Brigman.

Clean hands and clean surfaces are a must before beginning preparation. Wash your hands and all cutting boards, knives and grilling equipment well before using them. If the picnic area doesn’t have water, pack up sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer to take along.

To simplify meal prep, wash and cut all your fruits and vegetables before storing them.

Keep your cooler cool.

Place coolers in the shade, and keep food coolers closed until meal time. Frozen water bottles are a genius hack that help keep food cold and afterwards serve as a refreshing beverage. Placing a blanket over the cooler will help it stay well insulated.

When you are ready to serve, consider using cold cooler mats or inflatable ice trays under the cold food to keep the picnic food at proper temperature.

Don’t forget the essentials: several cutting boards, knives, serving utensils, instant read thermometer, plates and eating utensils, hand sanitizer, paper towels, trash bags, water and zippered bags for leftovers.

Safe grilling

If you’re going to be doing any barbecue or grilling any meats or seafood, make sure you cook foods to the proper temperature. Use a meat thermometer to ensure that poultry is cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Seafood and whole meats should reach 145 degrees and ground meats 160 degrees.

Picnic food ideas

Alfresco dining is the perfect time for simple, healthy dishes, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, salads and proteins of your choice — picnic foods that won’t wilt in the heat.

When planning your easy picnic foods, “keep it simple, consider food safety, transportation and ease of eating,” suggests southern chef, cookbook author and James Beard award winner Virginia Willis. “Foods that wilt, like butter lettuce and mayonnaise salads, are better enjoyed at home. Instead think hardy foods that travel well and can be enjoyed on your lap or picnic table.”

Here are nine easy picnic menu ideas for your next alfresco meal:

1. Dried fruits, nuts and seeds

“Dried fruits, nuts and seeds will hold beautifully at your picnic table or even in the car in case you forget to take them out,” says Amanda Sauceda, a registered dietitian in Long Beach, California. “Mix all three together for an easy trail mix that people can munch on. Dried fruit will add a touch of natural sweetness and fiber. Nuts and seeds are the whole package because they have protein, healthy fats and fiber.”

The sky is really the limit when it comes to what you can add to your trail mix.

2. Fish and chicken in pouches

Taking along portable snacks of lean protein will help fill you up and keep you going. Individual pouches of salmon, chicken or tuna can be a delicious topper on a bed of kale, shredded carrots, pickled onions and a vinaigrette. Or bring bread and wraps to make sandwiches and wraps.

The pouches come in a variety of flavors. They’re also portable and won’t spoil in the heat.

3. Pre-made wraps, sandwiches or rolls

Prepare your favorite fillings and wrap them in lettuce, rolls, whole grain breads, tortillas or pitas. Wraps of lean turkey, red peppers and cheese are portable, filling and easy to eat. Assemble at home and pack in the cooler. The possibilities are endless, choose your favorite plant or animal protein along with veggies, cheese and more.

4. Fresh fruits

Fresh fruits are some of the favorite foods to eat at a picnic or barbecue, especially when cut into bite size pieces and skewered on a stick. Fruit that do not need refrigeration, such as apples, blueberries, cherries, pears, peaches, plums and nectarines, all work well outdoors. You don’t even need to precut them.

Watermelon is the perfect dessert and is crisp, sweet and refreshing,” adds Willis. She recommends skewers of watermelon and strawberries.

5. Fresh vegetable salads

Consider vegetable salads, such as blanched green beans with cherry tomatoes and a mustard vinaigrette.

“Salads don’t need to contain lettuce. Use your favorite veggie, blanch it and toss with other vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette,” says Willis. You can also make ahead vegetable kebobs with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella balls and basil for an easy picnic food.

Fresh vegetable salads can include:


— Cucumbers


— Red onions

— Peppers

— Cauliflower



— Green beans

— Corn

— Fennel

Wash everything ahead of time and pack up the vegetables in a serving bowl. Lay a damp, clean paper towel on top of the veggies and seal it to store in the cooler. Pack the dressing separately and toss it with the salad just before serving. Everything will stay fresh and crisp.

6. Fruit salsas

Fruit salsas are light and refreshing and make for perfect toppings for grilled meat, chicken or fish. You can also snack on them with chips. Many prepared foods sections of grocery stores stock a selection of salsas. You can also make your own by mixing cut fruit with cilantro, peppers, a little lime juice (which helps preserve the salsa) and honey.

These fruits are great options to make salsa:

— Cantaloupe

— Mangos

— Peaches

— Tomatoes

7. Grain salad bowls

Grain salad bowls offer endless variations.

“Farro is nutty and delicious and an excellent whole grain that pairs well with nuts, celery, carrots, dried or fresh fruit and even a little cheese, all tossed in an apple cider vinaigrette,” suggests Willis.

Chilled quinoa with a little corn mixed in provides color and a grain, and it’s a great picnic side dish that will hold up well in the summer heat, adds Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital in Arlington.

Quinoa is packed with protein and fiber, is gluten-free and a perfect substitute for pasta or rice. You can add other vegetables to this dish or even turn it into a salad by mixing in fresh kale, which is less likely than salad greens to wilt in warm weather, and topping it with a vinaigrette dressing or olive oil and lemon. Or try this recipe for Greek quinoa salad.

8. Canned bean salads

Canned bean salads are loaded with protein, fiber and a great vegetarian option. Toss together three different cans of drained beans — black, kidney and chickpeas — mixed with carrot, celery, onion, cucumber, herbs and a lemon vinaigrette. Or try this honey mustard bean salad recipe.

9. Snack foods

Before the meal begins, it’s always a good idea to have a few healthy snacks. Roasted chickpeas, edamame, hummus, nuts, popcorn, fresh cut veggies and whole-grain pita chips are just a few good picnic snack foods.

9 best foods to eat at a picnic:

— Dried fruits, nuts and seeds.

— Fish and chicken in pouches.

— Pre-made wraps.

— Fresh fruits.

— Fresh vegetable salads.

— Fruit salsas.

— Grain salad bowls.

— Canned bean salads.

— Simple snacks.

More from U.S. News

Worst Foods to Eat for Gut Health and Digestion

10 Best Electrolyte Drinks: Hydration Options for Optimal Health

Surprising Factors That Increase Sun Sensitivity

The Best Picnic Foods That Won’t Spoil in Warm Weather originally appeared on

Update 05/14/24: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up