It's around this time of year that many of us in the northern hemisphere begin to feel the pull of rising temperatures and sunny skies coaxing us outdoors after months of winter hibernation. For food lovers, picnics are a way to enjoy both food and the environment that ultimately begets much of what we eat.
Environmentally-friendly picnics don't require new gadgets, gear, and supplies. Neither must they employ the all-or-nothing principle. By thinking about just one aspect of the sustainability of your picnic, you can do something good for the planet and enjoy a new food experience, too.
Stay close to home
You needn't jump in the car to find a great picnic location. Picnics offer instant entertainment in places you might not have had reason to explore before. Walk or bike to a local park, landmark, or community sports field. Take your time, be observant, and enjoy the journey as well as the destination. You'll get some exercise, too, so don't forget to pack extra water to drink on your trek.
Discover new foods in new places
Let your taste buds be your guide. Find a farmers' market and explore a new place through its local foods. If you gather the food for your picnic there, you'll be supporting producers from the region as well.
Out-of-season produce, often readily available at the supermarket, may have been shipped long distances. Challenge yourself to create a seasonal feast for your picnic. Think asparagus in May, blueberries in July, apples in September. Growing seasons vary between regions; what you learn about local harvest dates in preparing for your picnic can help you seek out seasonal foods when grocery shopping as well.
Work for your meal
What better landscape for a picnic than acres of produce at a "pick-your-own" farm? By picking your own produce you can support a farm of your choice and may enjoy greater gratitude for nature's bounty. Many farms will have picnic tables available and lunchtime fare for sale; if you're there to pick, they'll probably welcome you and your picnic packed at home at their tables, too. But the fruits of your labors, eaten after a productive morning of picking, may be the best meal of all.
Conscientious foraging can be a hands-on education in ecology and conservation. Invest some time first in learning about collecting plants safely and responsibly. It also doesn't hurt to consult an experienced forager or go on a guided foraging expedition. Your foraging picnic could be as simple as harvesting and preparing dandelion greens from your own backyard.
It's true that you can purchase recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, and otherwise environmentally-friendly tableware, but you can also be mindful of the waste your picnic creates without spending more money. Seek out foods without a lot of extraneous packaging and those that can be eaten sans tableware. Think shish-ka-bobs instead of steak. Grill panini of mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil on ciabatta bread instead of serving a Caprese salad.
Respect your surroundings: grilling away from home or cooking over an open fire feels resourceful, but doing so unaware of the local rules is playing with fire.
Pack out what you pack in: if you can't prepare it without leaving something behind—including food scraps—don't take it.
Pack out only what you pack in: nature doesn't make souvenirs.
Know where you're going: don't get lost, and don't trespass—even accidentally.
Laura Troyer also writes at Eating Well Anywhere.
National Park Service
Portal to websites for United States National Parks
Find farmers' markets, family farms, and other local food producers
BBC's guide to the UK's seasonal produce (generally applicable to the United States, too)
Find local pick-your-own farms
Gather and Hunt Your Food
Portal to foraging guides, books, and experts
Wild About Dandelions
Dandelion foraging and recipes from Mother Earth News
Only you can prevent wildfires