The Point of Picnics

A well-known ‘foodie’ journalist recently described a picnic ‘as where lunch goes to die’, his argument being that the inconveniences and vagaries of al fresco dining get in the way of a good lunch. But being a foodie probably gives the clue to where he’s coming from. In my book, a picnic is not so much a special event as a simple everyday treat.

Of course, I’m not talking about organised sociable gatherings around a tablecloth spread on a lawn, such as our journalist may have had in mind – I sometimes enjoy partying like that with friends – but the ordinary and often solitary business of everyday refreshment.  I take every opportunity to eat outdoors. As a matter of routine, I pack my lunch and/or elevenses in my rucksack whenever I leave home for a meeting or rendezvous. I know not everyone thinks this makes for a pleasurable experience and may well prefer the convenience of a coffee shop or café to the faff of preparing and packing their lunch and then finding somewhere comfortable to consume it. And that’s before they take a chance on the weather!

So, what’s the attraction? Well, there is the science, which demonstrates the many benefits of being outdoors – like kickstarting the production of vitamin D, which helps protect against many diseases, such as osteoporosis, depression, heart attacks and strokes, as well as reducing inflammation and boosting our immune systems. And it doesn’t matter where you are – on your balcony, in your back garden or in the wilderness – people who eat outside are happier, more positive and less anxious. But I don’t really feel the need for scientific affirmation: intuitively, I know that I benefit physically and mentally whenever I sit outside and eat my lunch. The food and drink seem to taste better when enhanced by a pleasing view, a gentle breeze and the sound of birdsong. And even in bracing weather, I feel stimulated to be outside – though I may not linger so long! But, as the American author Bill Bryson observed, “…only the British could imagine they were having fun sheltering behind a rock with a thermos and a cheese sandwich”, so maybe there’s an element of hardiness in us all that has been suppressed by our comfortable modern lifestyle.

Research has shown that Americans (for example) spend as much as 90% of their time indoors and, given that most of our engagement with technology takes place indoors, time spent there can be stressful. So, removing ourselves from such stress can slow us down, easing muscle tension and improving concentration in a mindful way. It is now common knowledge that a walk outdoors provides all these benefits, so it’s time to shout out for the picnic, whether solo or in company. If we are with others, we tend to eat slower and appreciate more – our food, our surrounds and present company – and the social benefits of eating together in the usually informal outdoor environment include companionship, the strengthening of interactions and the building of trust.

Keeping things simple works for me but I know others get great joy in producing elaborate dining experiences with all the props that go with it – hampers, a table, chairs and so on – and I’m always happy to join in the fun. But waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along for such a treat can be a frustration. Meanwhile, I’m always prepared and eager to take my lunch outside and enjoy the benefits that are free to all who venture out to picnic at will!