This post is from 2013 but the points still stand!
In an Observer Food Monthly column Jay Rayner waxed lyrical about the horror of a picnic: this suggests to me he never needs to cater for someone on a Low-FODMAP style restrictive diet. We have no options but to picnic!
School summer holiday’s are upon us: in our house means it’s time for the Tupperware to brace itself for a lot of action. His Lordship is going to be away for a chunk of the holidays* so I have decided the only way to keep sane is to take the children out. A lot. Eating out in tearooms and museum cafes is not an option for the Little Miss and I. Rarely can we eat more than a bag of plain crisps. Also, the default price of everything in the catering outlets seems to be £3.50. I needn’t remind you how difficult a hungry child is to manage, especially in public. Trying to wrangle a child in meltdown while they scream ‘you’re choking me’ (you’re not) is at best embarrassing and at worst, soul destroying. Keeping children’s appetites sated is the make or break of a day out. We shall be hammering the National Trust Membership card and the Park Hall Countryside Experience card (http://www.parkhallfarm.co.uk) will see more than it’s fair share of action too. Without these two memberships summer holidays can be financially crippling.
I am not going to criticise the long summer holidays, yes they may be a pain for parents to organise childcare but children need a break. A long break to dream, have adventures and, (dare I say it?) to get a bit bored. Boredom can breed invention. School isn’t just a handy childcare solution; children work really hard. Can you imagine trying to learn the volume of things they learn over a school year now? It’s phenomenal!
I digress. Picnics are the obvious solution for us. Over the past couple of years I have become something of a dab hand at throwing a picnic together. The secret? Don’t try to be clever. Food needs to be portable enough not to disintegrate in a box that’s being jammed into a rucsac and easy enough for them to carry on playing while they’re eating it. In an ideal world everyone would sit down nicely on a rug (whilst remembering to keep their shoes off it), the fare would look like Ratty’s picnic from Wind In The Willows and we’d eat from pretty plates whilst quoting Wilde or Keats. The reality is usually a small spot squeezed in an adventure playround and food is shoved in the general direction of their mouths whilst new friendships are kindled or broken.
So what should go in the rucsac? Yes, a rucsac, you need as few bags as possible to lose. Carrying everything in one shoulder bag will ruin your back and you’ll only ever have one properly free hand. It’s the most practical solution for chasing children too.
Firstly, a wet flannel, no wet wipes can do the job quite as well.
A plastic carrier bag for for rubbish and another for wet things.
For this reason a spare pair of pants or knickers is a must: they can double as impromptu swimming costumes too.
Plastic carrier bags to sit on if the ground’s wet as they are lighter than a big rug.
Another plastic bag for anything unexpected.
Drinking bottles of water. One each, not forgetting one for you.
Cherry tomatoes with a tiny pot (think film canister size) of Maldon salt mixed with freshly ground pepper. You dip your tomato in and my children will eat punnet after punnet this way. I'm not going to stress about the tiny amount of salt they actually eat here.
Carrot sticks. The children have a love/hate relationship with these. I’ll end up finishing them off but that’s fine, I like them. I need snacks too!
Bag of crisps each (shock! Horror!). They can take a long time to eat, which can be useful.
Sandwiches. Don’t go crazy, they’re not interested in how fancy they are or how artisan the bread is – they need to stick together and be posted into busy mouths by small busy hands. Wraps are useful if you can eat them. Otherwise it’s gluten free bread for the Little Miss. You’re most likely to be able to slip a bit of lettuce in sandwiches. Cheese is perennially popular as is any sliced meat. Other ‘sticky’ foodstuffs, such as peanut butter, help the picnic cause but I tend to steer clear of pate - even with my slapdash approach to food safety, pate kept for a few hours in a warm rucsac isn’t great.
Fruit. Blueberries or grapes in Tupperware hold their shape best. Bananas ruin anything else in your bag and make everything smell banana-y. Bananas are OK in sandwiches though. Apples can work if you wrap them in whatever else is in your bag to protect them. Chopped melon in a Tupperware works and dried fruit is naturally bump resistant. If you are low-FODMAP, watch how many of these you have.
Boiled eggs can provide a little amusement, however unless you are prepared to inevitably peel them all yourself, don’t bother.
Biscuits are good when they’re flagging. Take chocolate though and you’ll have a horrible mess if it warms up.
I usually have a box of salad that can be anything from last night’s leftovers to some hastily assembled fridge detritus. TAKE A FORK! I recently had to eat a mix with a coffee stirrer - rookie mistake.
A knife is always useful. Even if you don’t think you’re going to need it, you may be called upon to whittle something. It happens.
Lightweight waterproofs - even if the weather says it’s not going to rain they can keep a chilly wind off.
Suncream and sunhats that are as small and as foldable as possible.
Cash. I accept that any outing will involve me needing a coffee at some point and if, ye gods, they have a lowFODMAP suitable ice-lolly, sorbet or ice cream I will probably let the children have one. Keep this treat until later on – you may need to bribe good behaviour.
If diets are restricted it is probably worth having a ‘treat’ in your bag in case there isn’t something available and you need to placate; I don’t think it’s fair that the Young Master should always miss out.
If you’ve never played ‘tippet’ now’s the time to start learning. Take a penny piece and they can spend a surprisingly long time guessing which hand it’s in.
Even the crappiest of plastic magnifying glasses or binoculars can be diverting in even the crappiest environments.
Never take children in a gift shop unless you’re willing to buy large amounts of bankruptcy inducing tat. Children don’t browse, they want. And they want. And they want.
Try and prepare everything the night before or you may end up wasting most of the morning sorting things out by which time they’re hungry for elevenses.
Camera/phone – you never know.
Remember to take all your litter home, close gates, don’t harass livestock etc… Consideration for others and the environment is as good a lesson as they’ll ever learn in any classroom.
Don’t get hung up on schedules. If I child is showing the sort of focused and locked on attention to something as only a child can, go with it. You may learn something too about a line of ants on a pavement. Enjoy it, the C16th tapestry will still be there tomorrow, your peculiar little 4 year old won’t.
There will always be a dead bird. And they will always want to poke it with something. Sometimes it can stretch to a dead lamb. This time it was a dead shrew that they needed to document. Them’s the rules. Unclench.
Check whether your destination is open before you go. Obvious but often overlooked.
Know when it’s time to go home. Even if you feel you haven’t visited every part of wherever you’ve been, it’s important recognise when everybody’s tired before they start showing you with their fractious behaviour. This also applies to adults.
So there are my top tips for a day out. It is hard work but hopefully a lack of picnic ambition on your part will make it easier and you may, just may, be able to enjoy your time with your children. They’re not interested in whether they’d look out of place in The White Company Catalogue, they just want to spend some time with you; don’t ruin it by trying to impress a non-existent audience.
Lastly back to Jay Rayner, who, seriously, takes a quiche on a picnic? That’s just stupid.
*This time he'll be photographing an IETF conference in Berlin. http://stonehousephotographic.com Last half term it was a WWF job in Wyoming, I'm beginning to see a link between the school holidays and his trips abroad...