It's the perfect season to enjoy a family meal outdoors, whether the menu features impromptu takeout at a local park or more elaborate offerings.

If only we could bottle up summertime and crack it open when things get gray during other times of the year. Since that’s not possible, make the most of it by soaking up those sunbaked days and mild nights now. One way to get more mileage out of the season: Take lunch or dinner outside for a festive and novel experience.

Kids love picnics. And being out in the fresh air surrounded by the sounds of nature is a mood booster and a stress reliever for everyone. That’s just science. And a picnic can be cheap. We love that part. 

Don’t sweat it too much. A picnic can be pulled together at the spur of the moment. You don’t need much. But if you enjoy planning and have the time, you can really dig into the details. Prepare special foods and host a mad tea party a la “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” under a canopy of trees. Or rent a local park’s picnic shelter and invite dozens of people for a whole afternoon of fun, grilling out and bonding.

However it comes together, a summer picnic is a winner.

Where to Go

Anywhere you live in Central Ohio, there’s likely to be a municipal park or Metro Park within minutes of home. That’s an obvious choice for an outing. You could nosh within yards of grazing bison at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park on the West Side, or sit on the shady banks of the beautiful pond at Columbus’ Schiller Park, the setting for many wedding and prom photo sessions.

“After your meal, there are miles of scenic trails to walk off those calories while looking and listening for wildlife as you wander through woods, fields and along streams,” says Peg Hanley, spokeswoman for Metro Parks, which has 19 sites in Central Ohio. There’s “plenty of open space for catching [a] ball, playing soccer or a friendly game of horseshoes.” Some parks even offer fishing.

Note, however, that the first come, first served picnic shelters in heavily traffic parks such as Blacklick Woods (Reynoldsburg), Sharon Woods (Westerville) and Highbanks (Lewis Center), can be an iffy proposition in the summer. Some days, Hanley says, several cars are lined up first thing in the morning waiting for the ranger to open the gates so the drivers can claim the shelters.

So, you might try a site off the beaten path for your outing. To reserve a shelter on a certain day for a large group, go to the Metro Parks website. Some people tow in smokers to cook ribs and hang out all day. Others bring grills, but occasionally leave them behind. When that happens, they’re donated to the Salvation Army. So check your picnic site before heading for home.

For a city setting, options include the Ohio Statehouse lawn in the heart of Downtown, where picnickers can explore the statues and monuments after eating. Or, dine near the deer statues next to the Scioto River, in front of COSI. Topiary Park features picnic tables as well as a lovely locale, thanks to a botanical version of Georges Seurat’s famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte.”

The Oval at Ohio State University’s main campus (181 Oval Drive S., Columbus) is ideal for people watching. Or for a little whimsy, set up your meal in the Garden of Constants, amid giant number statues and mathematical formulas carved into the pavers outside of OSU’s engineering building at 2055 Millikin Road.

Setting a Scene

If you have a picnic on short notice, you can make do with the way Mother Nature has already decorated your open-air dining room. Though you might keep a blanket in the trunk for spontaneous excursions.

But with a few minutes’ notice to grab some items, you can create a memorable scene. Opt for a picnic basket and some red-and-white-checked accessories for a cheerful vintage look, suggests Larissa Aperecida Smith, owner of Lewis Center-based Perfect Parties. 

“I would definitely try to bring some pillows,” Smith says. Try spreading out a sheet and scattering inexpensive throw pillows, purchased from a dollar store or IKEA—or even just borrowed from home. “It gives a nice vibe,” she says. “It looks more fancy that way. It’s comfy. They can even lay down.”

If you’re going for the wow factor, Smith says wooden pallets and crates are perfect scene-setters. Home-improvement stores will often give them away. You can stack two pallets for a makeshift table, putting pillows around it as seats. Top it with a centerpiece of flowers, either real or artificial. Set up a crate nearby with a jar for drinks.

For an extra special touch, string some LED lights. You could even set up a dollar-store chalkboard sign proclaiming it a “Picnic for the Smiths.”

What to Eat

You can eat almost anything outdoors that you could inside. Take the easy route and run to a grocery store deli or a drive-thru for your feast. Or toss together an easy meal at home, featuring sandwiches, salads, chips and pies.

Tresalyn Butler, owner and manager of Young Chefs Academy in Gahanna, recommends a menu featuring a few summery, easy kid-tested favorites: a simple club sandwich, fresh-squeezed lemonade and a fruit salad with honey-lime dressing (see below).

These dishes work well, she says, because kids can assemble them themselves, and they can cut the soft fruits with just a butter knife. “And it gets them to try new things,” Butler says. “As with the fruit salad, they may not be fond of every fruit in there, but they may be more inclined to try it if they’ve helped to cut it up.”

If it’s a fancier, fussier party you’re hosting (such as a tea party), Butler suggests using maraschino cherry juice in the lemonade to tint it pink.

Kid-Tested Picnic Recipes

Try these easy-to-prepare favorites, courtesy of Young Chefs Academy of Gahanna.

Fruit Salad

1⁄2 tablespoon orange zest

1⁄2 cup fresh orange juice (about 2 navel oranges)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 apple or pear

1 small banana

1 peach or nectarine

1/2 cup melon

3/4 cup seedless red or green grapes, cut in half

3/4 cup strawberries, hulled and quartered

1/3 cup blueberries or pitted cherries

1/3 cup honey

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1. Place the orange zest, orange juice and lemon juice in a large bowl.

2. Cut the apple, banana, peach and melon into cubes, adding the fruits to the bowl as you cut them to prevent discoloration.

3. Add the remaining fruits. Stir, coating the fruit with juice, then cover the bowl and refrigerate for 2 hours.

4. For the dressing, whisk together the honey and lime juice.

5. Serve the fruit salad and drizzle with dressing. Makes 6-8 servings.

Old-Fashioned Lemonade

1 cup granulated sugar

3 cups water, divided

Pinch salt

2/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 7-8 lemons)

Lemon and lime slices to garnish

Optional: 1 tablespoon maraschino cherry juice to make pink lemonade

1. Prepare a simple syrup by combining the sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan. Place over high heat and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.

2. Pour the syrup into a large pitcher and add the salt, lemon juice and remaining 2 cups of water. Stir until combined. Just before serving, add lemon and lime slices to the pitcher and serve over ice. Makes 3 cups.

Club Sandwich

6 slices white sandwich bread, 1⁄2-inch thick

6 strips thick-cut bacon

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoons mustard

4 large Green leaf lettuce leaves, washed and dried

1⁄4 pound deli turkey, thickly sliced

1 large tomato, sliced

Salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line a sheet pan with foil.

2. Lay the bacon on the foil. Cook until crisp, about 20 minutes. Remove the cooked bacon to a plate lined with paper towels. Set aside to cool.

3. Turn the broiler on low. Put a wire rack on a sheet pan.

4. Spread both sides of each piece of bread with mayonnaise, using 4 tablespoons' worth. Transfer to the prepared pan and toast under the broiler until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and toast the other side. Set aside to cool slightly.

5. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining mayonnaise and mustard. Spread the mixture on one side of 4 pieces of the toasted bread.

6. To build the sandwiches, tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces. Place some of the lettuce on top of 2 slices of the toasted bread spread with the mustard mixture. Top with turkey, then a piece of plain toast. Add the rest of the lettuce, bacon and tomatoes. Season tomatoes with salt and pepper. Close the sandwich with remaining slices of bread and secure each with 4 toothpicks. Cut each sandwich into quarters. Makes 2 sandwiches.