Family Picnic

Family Picnic (Shutterstock / May 5, 2013)

To have a picnic, all you need is some food and a patch of grass or sand – and even those rules are flexible.

“It’s a sense of freedom,” said Hilary Heminway, author of Picnics (Gibbs Smith, $9). “It’s the way most people ate before the time of four wheelers. People were picnicking on the floor of some castle, eating with their fingers, sitting on straw.”

Today, we’re a little more sophisticated, although the perfect picnic foods are still those that don’t require a fork and knife.

That’s why a prepared picnicker always brings wet washcloths to clean off those sticky fingers post-meal, Heminway said. Other must-haves include a garbage bag and bug spray.

Beyond that, the picnic destination should dictate the food and the necessities.

“If you’re going on a boat picnic, you need a cooler that’s waterproof,” Heminway said. “If you’re going to the beach or to the desert, don’t take a wicker picnic basket because the sand will get through.”

In Chicago, it’s possible to fulfill all your picnic needs by stopping at a few stores and cafes pre-picnic.

Pastoral

If you want a traditional picnic, this is the place to go. Hard cheeses such as cheddar can stand up well to heat. Add in brie, which will ripen under the sun and goat cheese, which blends well with dried fruit – and you’ve got a great cheese spread. They’ve got all those and more here. To get really fancy with your cheese, get a piece of Lille cheese ($8 for about 1/3 of a pound), which is rich and creamy with a mushroom flavor, and snag a piece of Shèvre frais, a fresh goat’s milk cheese with peppercorn and chives (about $6 for a 4-ounce piece).

Pastoral has three Chicago retail locations: 53 E. Lake St., 312-658-1250; 2945 N. Broadway, 773-472-4781; 131 N. Clinton St., 312-454-2200, www.PastoralArtisan.com

Jerry’s

These sandwich fanatics have an offering for every palate from simple to totally complex – and the menu oozes summer goodness. Grab Jerry’s fried green tomatoes ($9), mini corn dogs ($10), fried cheese curds, ($8) and a muffuletta (root beer-glazed ham, country ham, sausage, salami, provolone and olive-pepper relish on sourdough, $13) and house-made chips ($4.50) and you’ll be the most popular person at the beach. We’d also suggest that, instead of a picnic potluck, which just becomes a mix mash of pasta salads and chopped watermelon, you up it a notch with Jerry’s catering. They’ll deliver anywhere from Ravinia to the Indiana Dunes.

Find all of Jerry’s sandwiches at 1938 W. Division St., 773-235-1006 or 5419 N. Clark, 773-796-3777 and online at www.JerrysSandwiches.com.

Crate & Barrel

The posh home décor chain has everything you’ll need for your picnic sans the food. Grab a picnic basket ($40), a picnic blanket ($45) and even a picnic knife ($10) which comes with a cover so you don’t slice a finger reaching inside your picnic basket. The Table in a Bag ($60) folds down to the size of a small lawn chair. It’s super easy to unfold and assemble to become a sturdy picnic table big enough to hold food for four people. When you’re done, take it apart and stash it back in its carrying bag for next time.

There are multiple locations throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. For more info, check out www.CrateAndBarrel.com.

Wicker Basket Café

On a regular day, making a sandwich at home for lunch is fine. But on picnic day, go the extra mile by getting it made for you here – even if you are creating your own (choose your own meat, cheese, veggies, condiments and bread, $7). You could also get some fancy pasta salads and other prepared foods perfect for sharing. Essentially, Wicker Basket is picnic food at its best. Grab a pound of pistachio penne pasta salad ($7), a red grape and almond chicken salad sandwich ($7), homemade brownie ($1.40) and a San Pellegrino Limonata ($1.20), and you’ve got a fancy picnic ready to go.

Wicker Basket Café is located at 2113 W Division, 773-698-8413, www.WickerBasketCafe.com.

Bed, Bath and Beyond

This mega store has more than 40 picnic baskets available online, and usually stocks one in every brick and mortar store. The baskets vary from a Zuma Insulated Picnic Backpack ($30) to a Highlander Picnic Basket ($130). If they don’t have the one you want in the store, you can ask to have it shipped to the store (or sometimes even to your home) free. BB&B also has insulated wine totes ($28), perfect for picnicking at Ravinia, where alcohol is permitted. Traveling cheese boards (from $24) and beach chairs (from $20) fulfill all your non-edible picnic needs. The Avalanche Green Rolling Picnic Cooler ($150), an all-in-one-option, will have you good to go. It rolls and can fit 45 cans or an entire picnic for four. It also comes with a tablecloth, four plate settings, a cutting board, and cheese knife and bottle stop.

There are stores throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. For more info, check out www.BedBathandBeyond.com.

Fox & Obel

This gourmet grocery store is perfect for a decadent picnic, especially if you really want to impress. Think proposal picnic, fancy symphony picnic or birthday celebration picnic. Make a platter with the market’s (mostly) handcrafted cheeses, throw in one of their artisans breads, create a dessert spread from their bakery section (go with the tarts and chocolate croissants), grab a few small bottles of prosecco and you’re in for a picnic treat. Add a jar of Royal White Sturgeon Caviar ($95 for 1 ounce) to take your picnic to the next level.    

Fox & Obel is located at 401 E. Illinois St., 312-410-7310, www.Fox-Obel.com.

Harold’s Chicken Shack

Grab a tub of their fried chicken, a few sodas and hit the beach for this easy-going picnic. The chicken is fried to order, so expect to wait about 20 minutes for your food to be ready. And since it’s made to order, it’s crispy juicy and perfect for a casual eat-with-your-fingers picnic. The restaurants have buckets starting at eight pieces and tapping out at 24. An eighth-piece mix ($8.50) can serve four people.

Several Harold’s Chicken Shacks are located throughout Chicago. Check out www.HaroldsChicken55.com.