The Fourth of July is one of those holidays that screams “picnic!” Maybe it’s because I grew up on the East Coast, where we actually get hot, sticky summers instead of San Francisco’s chilly fog-fest, but the thought of picnic tables laden with platters of watermelon and sweet corn makes me swoon! It brings up memories of family members gathering with casserole dishes of baked beans, cousins running around with squirt guns, hot dogs crisping on the grill, and sparklers late at night. So, in this red, white, and blue-inspired euphoria, I’m passing on some of the fun picnic ideas I’ve done in the past.
The best thing about a picnic is that it’s outdoors (or at least it should be if you live in the right climate), so you really don’t need a ton of decor. Something as simple as red, white, and blue balloon lanterns are an easy way to perk up any location. You can mix and match everything within that simple color scheme: platters, tablecloths, napkins, etc. There’s no need for things to match exactly! Also, doing something simple, like rolling white napkins around blue plastic cutlery and tying with a red satin ribbon (or curling ribbon) can add a charming touch to any picnic table.
For a simple centerpiece, fill a mason jar with rice (or red, white, and blue sand if you have it) and insert a few American flags or inexpensive pinwheels.
You can make inexpensive bunting swags by taking 2 yards of stiff material (the stiffer the better, like a starched cotton) and fan-folding it, and using large binder clips to secure each end. When you are ready to hang your swags, tie a string through the upper binder clip, release the lower clip, and open the ends apart from each other. They will form a natural swag. Add a safety pin to each end and hang from each of the three points.
Finally, almost everyone has something red, white, or blue lying around the house, so have your guests help with a “decor potluck”: ask them to bring a flag (just make sure they mark it with their name) and hang them from a clothesline. You may be surprised when someone brings an old-fashioned version, or by seeing how flags are made differently when compared side-by-side.
A 4th of July picnic is a great time to get to know new faces, or reconnect with those you’ve lost touch with. Help keep track of this by having people create a photo album or memory book; have a check-in table where guests can use a disposable or digital camera to take a family photo (if you are lucky enough to have one of those cool Fuji instant cameras, that would be fantastic). On a fun sheet of paper, have them decorate their page and fill out the following information:
1. Number of shot they just took on the camera (if using a digital or disposable camera)
2. Names of all the people in the shot
3. What each person is wearing (so that when you get the photos developed, you will know who is who).
I love potlucks. It’s a great way to get to taste and sample favorite dishes from all over. Add a fun twist to your next picnic by having a contest! You can have your guests sign up to bring a certain food item ahead of time, and if they like, have it entered into a friendly competition. You could have categories like side dish, salad, and dessert. When folks arrive, assign their item a number and place it on the table. Choose a few “guest judges” to taste all the entries and score the various dishes from 1 to 10. To even the playing field, there should be no age limit on the chefs (yes, 6-year-old Josie can enter her “chocolate pudding surprise!”), and score on taste alone. Have the judges decide first, second, and third place in each category, and award little prizes or homemade ribbons to the winners in the last hour of the party.
Old fashioned sing-along
If you’ve got musical guests, ask them to bring along their instruments. Print up a few old-fashioned songs with basic chords (this website has great patriotic songs with chords) and have folks sit down for an impromptu jam session. Or pull out the karaoke machine and order a disc of songs, like this one from Amazon. The object is to have fun, and sing together as a group. No one needs to be a star, or even have to perform; it’s just meant to be fun.
Who can resist a parade? Ask guests to bring bikes, wagons, and scooters, then set up a table full of paper streamers, ribbons, tissue paper, tape, beads, foils, stickers, etc. and let guests go to town! Have them decorate their forms of transport however they like. Then hand out kazoos and mini flags, and at a designated time, have a parade around the backyard. You might even want to award prizes for the best decor.
As an East Coast gal I remember being fascinated by lightning bugs. My cousin Greg and I would spend hours chasing and capturing the little flashing critters. Sadly, I’ve never seen one here in California, but if you live in an area where they exist, grab a bunch of clear plastic containers (deli containers work perfectly), punch holes in the lids for air, and let the kids go hunting. This dusk to dark activity will keep kids engaged for hours -- just make sure you let the bugs go at the end of the evening.
It’s the great American pastime made simple enough for everyone to play. You can usually find a whiffle ball set (either a softball or regular version) in your local department store or large chain pharmacy. They make big bat versions for little ones, so that everyone can get into the action. Rules are pretty much like baseball: three strikes you’re out, three outs and the next team is up. Keep it light and non-competitive by adding funny rules, like everyone running to first base needs to skip, everyone running to second must leap like a ballerina, everyone going to third must walk on tippy toe, and everyone going home must hop like a kangaroo!
What picnic is complete without games? Whether you’ve got kids or not, no one can resist the lure of a good old-fashioned picnic game. Prizes aren’t necessary, as they can add a whiff of competition, but if you’ve got them, hey, why not use them? Here’s a list of some of my favorites.
Water balloon toss
Partners pair up and pass a water balloon back and forth between them, taking a step backwards with each pass. The object is to see who can keep going the longest and farthest.
Potato sack races
Use old pillow cases for smaller children, and heavy-duty garbage bags for adults (if you don’t have actual burlap sacks, that is). The object is to put both your legs into a sack and race, by jumping only, from one end to the next of a playing field. If you’ve got more players than sacks, just split folks into teams and turn the race into a relay.
Players pair off, stand side by side, and bind their inner legs together. The object is to walk together in unison from one side of the field and back again as quickly as you can. This does take some practice, but it’s a great game for teamwork!
Get ready to get messy! Each player is given a cup of jello on a plate (either with or without whipped cream). On “Go!” they have to place their hands behind their backs and slurp up the Jell-o and whipped cream before all the other players.
Another messy game that makes for a great photo op! Each player is given a pie plate full of whipped cream with a piece of bubble gum hidden somewhere at the bottom. The object is to find the bubblegum without using their hands, chew the bubble gum, and blow a bubble. The first one to do so wins!
Get your guests calculating by filling a clear jar with an undisclosed number of pieces of candy (jelly beans, M&Ms, Skittles, etc.) Have guests fill out a little slip of paper with their best guess. The one who guesses closest wins the jar of candy.
As the day slips away, there’s no finer way to celebrate the day than with fireworks. Check your local listings for firework displays, then grab your blankets and your coolers and go sit out under stars watching the bursts of light in the sky. I realize this might not be an option in some areas, so if worst comes to worst, you can always check out YouTube. They’ve got some great firework displays.
Happy 4th, everyone!