15 Make-Ahead Picnic Recipes That Travel Well in a Cooler

published Jun 27, 2023
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a stack of Pinwheels (tortillas wrapped with various ingredients and sliced like sushi) on a white plate with a blue striped napkin behind it.
Credit: Kelli Foster

As soon as the weather warms up, many people are suddenly eager to dine outside. There are a few key features that make foods cooler-friendly. Look for recipes that involve some crunch, such as fresh veggies tossed with a delicious dressing, or baked goods that won’t crumble. It’s a good idea as well to find items that don’t need to be heated and, better yet, ones that can offer some respite from the outdoor heat. 

It also matters how you pack a picnic. Place baked goods, sandwiches, and flatbreads in a hard-sided watertight container so that they retain their shape. Salads and side dishes travel well in lidded bowls or silicone bags, for instance, while a sturdy cooler also helps food travel safely to its destination. But if you need more help figuring out exactly what to pack, I’ve rounded up 15 recipes that I know will arrive safely and taste great (I’ve tried them myself!). Check out these refreshing summer recipes for all your picnicking needs. 

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How To Make the Best Pasta Salad Without Mayo

While mayonnaise is a culinary delight, it does not necessarily travel well in warm temperatures. Your grandmother’s macaroni salad recipe is not the best choice to pack for the beach, but this option is. It’s made with vinaigrette and tossed with soft cheese, and you can add some hard salami or pepperoni cubes if you need more protein.

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Gỏi Gà (Vietnamese Shredded Chicken and Cabbage Salad) Recipe

Another no-mayo swap, this gỏi gà (chicken salad in Vietnamese), is packed with veggies and protein to fuel long summer days outside. Julienned vegetables are paired with shredded chicken and tossed with a vinaigrette made with fish sauce and sugar. Eat it with a fork or on crackers — either choice is equally delicious.

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Taiwanese Cold Noodles Recipe

If cold noodles are what you’re after, then you should give this Taiwanese recipe a go. Sliced ham, strips of egg, English cucumbers, and carrots give the dish color and flavor, while the sesame dressing adds even more richness. The dressing can be made up to a week in advance, so that makes assembling your picnic a bit simpler if you’d like to get ahead.

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Fruit Pizza with Sugar Cookie Crust

Every picnic needs a good dessert — or you could make it the main course, if you want. This fruit pizza is made to be eaten cold, so place some ice around it in your cooler before you set out for wide open spaces. The cream cheese topping holds up better in a cooler than mayonnaise, but the key to traveling with flatbreads and pizzas is in the packaging. Cut the pizza and place it in a shallow container with wax paper in between each layer. Set it in the bottom of the cooler so that food placed on top keeps it secure.

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Sesame Ginger Pasta Salad

Ribbons of radicchio and a spicy ginger dressing kick this summer picnic pasta salad up a notch. The best part? The dressing is available at many grocery stores, so it’s quick to assemble. This salad also stays fresh for several days — even improving with age as the flavors mingle — so it’s perfect to make ahead of a busy week full of summer adventures.

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Fruit Salad in a Jar

This versatile yet simple fruit salad recipe can be spiced up with nuts, mint, or other additions as the warmer months progress. The lemon juice in the jar keeps fruit crisp, even if the salad is made ahead of time. Don’t want to pack glass in a cooler? These salads can be layered in any small container — even an empty yogurt tub will do the trick.

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Garlic and Ginger Turkey Lettuce Wraps

This turkey lettuce wrap recipe can be a main course if you want to have a light-but-filling lunch beneath a tree. Pack washed and dried lettuce in a separate container for easy assembly wherever you are dining. Make sure to choose a sturdy lettuce, like butter lettuce, so that the leaf can handle the heft.

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Mandarin Orange Salad Recipe

The crisp greens in this simple mandarin orange salad won’t get soggy in the light, flavorful dressing. Oranges, pomegranate seeds, and the sweet candied pecans contrast with the slightly bitter escarole for a flavor explosion that is refreshing for hot days.

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Pinwheel Recipe

While standard sandwiches can become soggy or squashed in a cooler, pinwheels like these are a perfect handheld choice. After you’ve assembled and sliced these turkey pinwheels, layer them in a shallow container with wax paper in between each layer in order to retail their shape.

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Savory Scones with Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

This fun twist on the sweet scone has main-course energy, with the benefit of being easy to eat on the go. The chevre and tomato are a perfect pairing, but it’s easy to swap in any other veggie or cheese of your choice — bell peppers and feta are a great option, too.

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Loaded Savory Breakfast Muffins

These protein-packed breakfast muffins can be eaten hot or cold, making them a great choice for a breakfast picnic — although they can be enjoyed at any time of day. Change up the ingredients for different flavor mash-ups. The best part? These muffins can be made ahead and frozen, and one large batch can last all summer.

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Gluten-Free Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

These gluten-free poppyseed muffins are so good that no one will know you’ve swapped out the wheat flour, making them enjoyable for a large party of people with different dietary needs. And like the aforementioned breakfast muffins, they can be made ahead of time and frozen for easy packing — which is just perfect.

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Buffalo Chicken Wraps Recipe

Cold chicken wraps are a delight on a hot day, but the flavorful heat in these Buffalo-style ones adds an extra punch. Pro tip: Make smaller wraps to pack in your cooler so that diners can easily pick up a portion in one hand. Encasing each wrap in parchment paper or plastic wrap before placing it in a water-tight container will help them maintain their shape on their way to your destination.

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Dad’s Blender Salsa Fresca Recipe

While there are many jarred salsas on the market that taste great, summer is the time to take advantage of farmers market produce and make your own. This simple blender salsa takes almost no time to make and can be delivered right to your mouth with chips — no flatware needed.

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Raspberry Pepper Jelly Cream Cheese Dip Recipe

This cream cheese recipe is so simple even the kids can help. All it takes is pouring some sweet-yet-spicy raspberry pepper jelly over a block of cream cheese, and then adding crackers, pretzel sticks, or even apple slices to the mix. To make this recipe portable, just combine the ingredients in a small shallow container with a lid. Because it’s made to be eaten together, it won’t matter if the ingredients slide around a bit.

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This post originally published on The Kitchn. Read it there: 15 Make-Ahead Recipes for Picnics That Travel Well in a Cooler