How to Make a DIY Always Ready Picnic “Basket”

How to Make a DIY Picnic Basket | Big Girls Small Kitchen

You want to go to the park for a picnic or the beach for an early sandwich dinner. Eating outside is irresistible, so this desire is probably on repeat right now. But planning the meal takes more effort than daydreaming about how to source tomatoes for patafla. You need stuff: utensils, cups, drinks, bug spray.

That’s why I’ve always been tempted to own one of those fully loaded picnic baskets, the kind with patterned plastic plates and a built-in strap for your wine bottle. But given the changing seasons of the northeast, I know that such a possession would burden the clutter-free kitchen for three-quarters of the year. It’s easy to say no when there’s no space for storage and the snow is falling. It’s harder to say no when the sun is shining, even when you don’t want to overcrowd your closets.

There’s no limit on over-thinking in a small space though, so I spent some time considering the reasons those stocked picnic baskets tempt us. They promise a classy way to eat in the park or at the beach, with reusable dinner plates and bottles of wine. But that’s not the whole story. They hold within their woven wicker walls the lure of spontaneity: Let’s have a last-minute picnic because the sun is out when predictions were for rain. You grab some sandwiches and I’ll pack the olives and we’ll be set. No long checklists, no forgetting of corkscrews, no inability to cut the chorizo because someone forgot a pocketknife.

We can recreate that feeling without a clunky hamper by making our own picnic-ready “baskets”–probably a tote, IRL–that’s on call for outdoor dinners. The aesthetics aren’t as fetching, but the convenience is enticing enough. Put together your basket as soon as summer arrives, then  keep the must-haves stowed in there for as long as the weather permits adventures. (You can find an empty corner to stuff the basket into, in season.) Then, when winter comes, unpack the summery things and roll up the tote, and don’t worry about making room for anything but summer nostalgia.

First, find the bag. Any large tote will do. I chose mine because of its size, and because a flat-seamed bottom keeps it standing upright. There’s also a a zippered closure and a thin insulated lining. If your tote collection looks like mine, you’ll have plenty to choose from. I don’t know where they all come from, but I cherish them.

Now that you’ve settled on a “basket,” go gather more bags and sacks and cases from beneath the bathroom sink and the back of the junk drawer. Pull out the freebie zippered pouches from plane rides or cosmetic subscription boxes, the cloth bags your espadrilles came in–or, if you’ve got neither, baggies. Containing picnic paraphernalia is key to our bag’s usefulness and all-summer-long durability. You’ll pack like with like in those mini bags, so there’s a place to put things back at picnic’s end.

Set your table. You’ll want plates and cups–reusable or a pile of throwaway, your choice. Into one of your sacks, stuff plastic forks, knives, and spoons. Bonus points if they’re left over from a party or salvaged from last week’s picnic, when you filched more forks than needed from the deli. Into another sack go napkins (or torn-off paper towels, or a half-used roll). Add a water bottle, one you don’t use regularly. Keep it empty; its presence in the bag will remind you to fill up before departing, and maybe to add an extra bottle before you go. Now fill up another little bag with the necessary utensils for serving and prepping: one paring or pocketknife, one corkscrew and bottle opener, a jar of salt and one of pepper if you like, little bottles or jars of olive oil and vinegar for last-minute seasoning, a small cutting board, and at least one sturdy non-disposable fork for serving and steadying. If you have a light tray you don’t use much at home, add that so that bottles and cups have a horizontal surface at the park, or you have a way to serve pita chips.

Look to repurpose items from your kitchen and pantry that you won’t miss day to day, like that cutting board someone gave you as a gift, that bottle opener party favor from someone’s wedding, that pocket knife you would bring on hiking trips if it were allowed in your carry-on.

Of course, sometimes you don’t own duplicates. Make a list of picnic necessities you can’t relegate to the basket full-time. Write the items on a little card, and clip it to the strap of your bag or the cutting board so you remember to grab them before you head out.

Prepare to keep the picnic neat with the right cleaning supplies. Pack two garbage bags, plus extra baggies or supermarket plastic bags to help separate reusable food and utensils from those destined for the trash. Two new Clorox® products, Scrub Singles and Pump ‘n Clean, help with tidiness. The Scrub Singles are like individual sponges. You wet them to activate their bleach-free cleaner, then use them to scrub down knives, the plastic containers you packed food in, or greasy grilling tools. If you’re cooking on a public grill, like the ones we have in Prospect Park, you can also use them to sanitize the grates before you sear your burgers. Clorox’s® Pump ‘n Clean makes one-handed clean-up a cinch. Press a paper towel down on the pump to soak up the food-safe cleaning liquid, then wipe down cutting boards and utensils without leaving a residue. (Don’t use to clean up from raw meat or fish though.) Clean up a cutting board used to chop veggies before repurposing it as a serving platter, or use the cleaners to do the initial wipe down before a second cleaning at home.

You probably have a handle on the picnic food you crave, but can I put in a plug for one formula I’m loving right now? Sandwiches (mine are cheddar and mortadella with spicy mayo, inspired by this winning favorite) with a side of sautéed vegetables, which are easier to eat than salads. I packed garlicky broccoli rabe here. You can’t go wrong with chips.

After the food, there’s fun. You’ll need a blanket or sheet for sitting. Toss in a frisbee, a deck of cards, and other favorite lawn or blanket games. I add a miscellaneous baseball hat for the fair-skinned, plus sunscreen and bug spray just in case. (Again, I harvest the assorted extras from our cabinet and closet stash: cards from a delay in the Houston airport, a cap from a work trip, sunscreen purchased on the way to Macchu Picchu…)

Here’s all that stuff in list form. Happy picnicking!

Set the Table

  • Plates
  • Disposable (or reusable!) silverware
  • Napkins or paper towels
  • Corkscrew/bottle opener
  • Reusable water bottle(s)
  • Salt and pepper (plus olive oil & vinegar if you’d like)
  • Pocket knife (or a paring knife protected with a cloth or case)
  • Cutting board and/or sturdy but light serving tray
  • Sturdy (non-disposable) fork (to steady breads or cheeses when cutting, for serving, to flip anything you’re making on the portable grill)
  • If grilling: aluminum pans for receiving hot stuff, tongs, matches or lighter, charcoal
  • Notecards/sticky notes to remind you what needs to go in the basket last-minute

Clean up

  • Garbage bag and extra baggies
  • Scrubs for cleaning surfaces, like Clorox® Scrub Singles
  • Cleaning liquid, like Clorox® Pump ‘n Clean
  • More paper towels


  • Sheet or blanket (you might store this in a second tote)
  • Deck of cards
  • Frisbee
  • Portable speakers
  • Bug spray (or bug-repellant candle, plus matches)
  • Sunscreen
  • Baseball cap


This post was sponsored by Clorox®. All opinions are my own. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep Big Girls, Small Kitchen delicious!

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