Finally, for most of us, the warmer weather is sticking around for a while. As we crave more ways to soak up the sun and spend time outside, a picnic in the park is an ideal way to experience the great outdoors — and not just for the delicious charcuterie.
“Picnics are a great way to enjoy food with family and friends, but they can also be a beneficial way to boost your mental health,” says Alison LaSov, a licensed marriage and family therapist and CEO at Advekit. “Incorporating picnics into your weekly or monthly plans can help reduce mental fatigue, [lower] stress levels, and elevate your mood,” she adds.
Meet the Experts
Alison LaSov is a licensed marriage and family therapist and CEO at Advekit.
Alyssa Scolari, LPC, is host of the Light After Trauma Podcast.
Up ahead, we explore ways to make the picnic dining experience habitual, how to set up the perfect picnic, and other activities you can do during a picnic to boost your well-being.
The Benefits of Picnics
Beautiful scenery? Check. Great food? Check. Good company? Check. But wait, there are even more surprising benefits to picnics, particularly when it comes to mental health.
- One of the first and most obvious benefits of picnics is that they get you outside and away from your computer, phone, and other distractions. According to LaSov, this allows you to “focus on being present in the moment.”
- “Spending time outside has been shown to significantly decrease cortisol levels, a.k.a. the primary stress hormone,” Alyssa Scolari, LPC, host of the Light After Trauma Podcast, explains. Even when it’s cloudy out, it “can increase vitamin D levels which help regulate your mood and decrease depression symptoms,” Scolari adds. Many people are deficient in this essential vitamin now that work-from-home culture is a more significant part of our lives. Remember to pack the sunblock!
- It can boost creativity and improve sleep since sunlight affects your circadian clock.
- Picnics “add variety and excitement to our usual routine of eating indoors,” says Scolari. Switching up your daily routine might also help alleviate chronic boredom and depression that results from monotony.
- Eating in the presence of nature can also help you “enjoy your food more and maintain more awareness about what you are eating,” says Scolari. “This is a much healthier alternative to eating your meals as quickly as you can before moving on to the next task on your to-do list,” she adds.
How to Have a Picnic
If the benefits of picnics sparked some inspiration, you might be feeling eager to get outside and dine. While you can picnic as often as you like, LaSov recommends dining outdoors in a park “once or twice a week at a minimum to reap the benefits consistently.” If once or twice a week doesn’t fit with your schedule but every other week does, then that’s a great starting point. “The idea is not to just eat outdoors once in a blue moon,” says Scolari.
As far as what to bring on a picnic is concerned, it’s entirely up to you — be sure it will still taste good while cold or at room temperature, as your food will likely lose some heat on your way to the park. Healthy pasta salads and wraps are great picnic foods, especially in warm weather. Scolari recommends packing foods “that have a wide range of colors” as “colorful foods stimulate your senses and help you remain calmer and more grounded.” And, don’t forget to hydrate! In addition to bringing water, you might also have some fun with freshly brewed iced tea.
With your food and beverages covered, the next thing to consider is a blanket, picnic basket, and activities to pack. You’ll want something large enough to fit everyone comfortably for your picnic blanket. You can purchase a blanket specifically made with picnics in mind or upcycle a vintage quilt. Your picnic basket should have enough space for your food, drinks, and ice packs to keep things cold. Some kits like the Picnic Time Picnic Set already come pre-packed with silverware, so you’re ready to go.
What to Do on a Picnic
The obvious thing to do is eat and enjoy the company of your friends and loved ones. You can incorporate lots of other fun activities into your picnic experience that revolve around de-stressing and mindfulness.
If you’re getting together with friends for an outdoor picnic, a journal session might be a fun and therapeutic activity. LaSov recommends giving gratitude journaling a try. “Gratitude journaling works because it slowly changes how we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on,” says LaSov. “Try to be specific and be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you.”
Talk with Friends and Family
Spending time with loved ones is a key part of the picnic experience, and talking with each other can have therapeutic benefits, says LaSov. “Having a great conversation can help release stress or tension and strengthen bonds,” she explains.
Read a Book
According to LaSov, reading is a pleasurable activity in and of itself. But, it also “stimulates your mind, increases your memory, and can help improve your empathy for others.” Need some fresh reading material? We’ve got you covered here.
Soak up the Sun
As highlighted above, spending time outside in nature has profound mental health benefits. So, simply taking the time to enjoy your surroundings can also be a great activity. “Embracing the sights and sounds around you can help ground you in the moment,” LaSov notes.
Play a Game or Do a Workout
Getting in some movement while picnicking can increase benefits as it gets the heart flowing and can release endorphins. Bring a bocce set, frisbee, and or however else you like to sweat to get those endorphins up.
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