FORT BENNING, GA. - July is National Picnic Month. There can be only one response to that statement and that is - to picnic.

Indeed, during the summer months, dining en plein air with only a blanket and a few delicious finger foods evokes quintessential Americana. Something about a laidback meal in a park, where your only entertainment is outdoor recreation and each other's company, seems to hearken back to simpler times. Plus, food just tastes better from a basket.

While picnicking is all about spontaneity, a dash of planning can make the experience that much better. Here's what you need to know to prepare your perfect picnic this holiday weekend or any other time.

Pick your picnic style

An elegant dinner for two requires different foods and accessories than a lively luncheon for a family of six. If you're planning to go this weekend, an Independence Day theme is an obvious choice. Here are a few others to choose from with some items you might want to bring along.

Aca,!Ac Beach picnic: beach ball, towels to lay on instead of blankets, parasol, squirt guns, water balloons, hot dogs, watermelon, macaroni salad, carrots and dip

Aca,!Ac Maui picnic: flower leis, ukulele, sarongs, limbo stick, roasted pork kabobs, pineapple, pina colada pudding, almond cookies

Aca,!Ac Romantic picnic: candle lanterns, mood-setting music, flower petals, wine, roast chicken, variety of cheeses, French baguette, strawberries and cream, chocolate truffles

Aca,!Ac Girlfriends picnic: pink plates and napkins, card games, tea and teacups, watercress sandwiches, brownie bites, AfAclairs

Aca,!Ac Classy picnic: folding chairs, clear plastic cutlery, cups and plates, coordinating table cloth and napkins, floral centerpiece, smoked salmon, crAfA..me fresh, sourdough bread, mini quiches, parfaits

Prepare your picnic food

When planning an al fresco meal, rule No. 1 is to bring plenty of water. Eating outdoors means dealing with the heat and humidity. You'll need an ample supply of beverages to counteract the weather.

It's also important to try to hit the five main food groups: pack a grain, a protein, a dairy item, a fruit and a vegetable. You'll want to bring a dessert, too, but steer clear of anything overly sticky or sweet. Choose fresh blueberry pie over fudge, angel food cake over a heavy cheesecake.

Common picnic foods include barbecue, hamburgers, lunchmeat sandwiches, deviled eggs, potato salad, veggies and dip, fruit salad, pasta salad, cantaloupe, grapes, cheese and crackers, cupcakes, cookies ... the possibilities are unlimited.

Think outside the box with cucumber salad, chilled asparagus soup, tomatoes stuffed with feta and spinach or turkey and southwestern ranch tortilllas.

Stick to finger foods or something that can be eaten with just a plate and a fork, and you'll be set for a hassle-free, easy to clean up picnic.

Pack your picnic basket

Don't feel pressured if you don't have a picnic basket. A large tote, cooler, reusable grocery bag or even an oversized purse may fit the bill.

Your lunch isn't the only thing that needs to go in your basket, though. Be sure to grab bug spray, ice packs to keep the food cool, sunscreen, lots of napkins, cutlery, plates, cups and any decorations you plan to use. And don't forget the blanket - or several, depending on the number of guests.

You also may want to step things up a notch by bringing party games. This can be anything from a deck of cards to a Frisbee. Or try a scavenger hunt by using what's already found in nature.

Contests are a good option, too. Whether you're judging the best tasting food item or the most outrageous costume, be sure to bring prizes for winners. They can be silly or serious, depending on your theme.

At the end of the day, be sure to clean up the aftermath of your fun. If there's no trash can on hand, bring a trash bag to make sure you leave your picnic spot as pristine as you found it.

For more ideas on picnic planning, including recipes and themed parties, visit www.picnicrecipesandgames.com or www.the-picnic-site.com.

Page last updated Thu July 1st, 2010 at 17:39