The Picnic Planner's Wish List

These kitchen-tested gadgets will make summer’s best outdoor gatherings even better.

Summer is underway and I’m determined to eat as many meals as possible al fresco. Coffee on the back deck. Picnics at the park. And—my favorite—burgers outside with friends. I’m preparing for all of those delicious outdoor meals with my favorite gadgets to cook and transport food. From a portable gas grill to an ingenious pie carrier for toting desserts across town. Want to take your picnic spread to the next level? We have you covered with our new review of picnic baskets and backpacks.

—Carolyn Grillo, Associate Editor, ATK Reviews

Thanks to its wide and comfortable straps, this backpack is much more comfortable to carry than traditional picnic baskets. A wide strip of fabric at the top of the backpack unzips, providing very easy access to food. The stainless-steel silverware was comfortable to use; the glasses were a touch heavier than other plastic models and had a very attractive shape, giving this backpack a slight edge over others in our lineup. The fleece blanket, which measured roughly 4¼ by 5 feet, had a water-resistant backing that gave it some structure. The wine pouch and corkscrew were useful additions, but we wish the pretty 6 by 6-inch bamboo cutting board was a bit larger.

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This insulated canvas basket is ideal for people short on storage space at home: It collapses to a compact 7-inch-tall oval with all its picnic gear still inside it. We also liked that we could hook its long handles over our forearms, giving our hands a break or freeing them up to carry other things. It comes with complete place settings for four people but no extra gear. Although the basket isn’t especially elegant, it’s a very practical spin on traditional wicker models.

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This charming wicker basket contains stainless-steel silverware and attractive wineglasses made from real glass, which elevates a picnic to a fancy affair even though the plates are plastic. The trade-off is that the basket is big and heavy—it weighs more than 8 pounds before you add food and drinks. Its dual doors fold out and stay open for easy access to the basket’s contents. It’s not insulated, but it comes with an insulated storage container that’s about the size of a small lunchbox.

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The heavy, corrugated stainless-steel grate of this solidly designed, compact grill spread heat evenly. (It's like a Ruffles potato chip, with tiny holes along the base of the V’s to drain fat.) Straightforward to use, with excellent heat control, it produced juicy, evenly cooked burgers and steak with crisp grill marks; grill-roasted pork loin to perfection; and fit a 4-pound chicken under its lid with room to spare. While it had just one burner, we were able to preheat the grill and then turn down the flame to slowly roast the pork without overcooking it, since its low, narrow vent and thick cast-aluminum construction efficiently trapped heat inside. At 20 pounds, with big side handles, it is easy to lift and transport; plus, its simple, accessible parts made cleanup easy, so we didn’t mind storing it indoors. An adapter for full-size propane tanks is available separately.

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This cleverly designed, supercompact, and extra-lightweight grill is easily the most portable of the grills we tested. With a rectangular steel body and a handle on top, it feels just like a tackle box. Curved steel legs swing up to latch the lid. Narrow vents slow the escape of heat and smoke and help the cook box stay hot, as does the griddle-like grate that resembles an enameled broiler pan. It doesn’t create impressive grill marks, but it gets the job done, and it’s extremely simple to clean.

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This smaller version of our favorite Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill shares many of its attributes. The ample cooking surface fit six to eight burgers at a time or a 1½-pound flank steak. The domed cover allowed us to grill-roast a butterflied chicken perfectly. Adjustable vents on the cover and on opposite sides of the grill’s body gave us plenty of control over the fire.

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Testers raved about this travel mug, which not only kept coffee hot and cold for far longer than any other mug we tried but also was the easiest to use. Slim from top to bottom, it was comfortable for hands of all sizes to hold, open, and close, but because the opening is narrow, we had to aim a little more carefully when filling it. A simple push of a button popped open its lid, exposing the clean drinking spout within. Testers also loved that this leakproof mug came with an equally easy-to-use locking mechanism, which provided good insurance against accidental spills. Just a few minor durability issues: Like the other models, it dented when dropped, and it smelled of coffee even after several washes. Also worth noting: Because it’s so good at retaining heat, you may want to cool your favorite beverage to the temperature you prefer before sealing the mug or you risk a very hot surprise on your first sip.

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This water bottle struck a happy medium: kids liked that it was easy to drink from and parents liked that it was easy to clean. It had a straw-free cap that allowed water to flow freely, as well as a cap lock that prevented accidental spills. It didn’t break or leak when dropped repeatedly or inverted and shaken. It also didn’t retain any smells or odors after the green smoothie test. The kids liked its grippy silicone sleeve and carrying handle that made for easy transport and found its lid easy to remove and put back on.

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Our winner had the widest mouth in the lineup, which made it simple to fill—no spills or drips. The screw-on lid had a wide, arched handle that was easy to grip and turn, though users occasionally took an extra few seconds to get the lid on track. We liked that this model was dishwasher-safe and had no extra parts to remove during cleaning, and it survived three indoor drops despite its 2½-pound (filled) weight. It's also available in a 16-ounce size, if you prefer a lighter load.

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Our favorite blender capably turned out smooth margaritas and smoothies and creamy salad dressing. Like those of the other models in our lineup, its narrow cup opening was difficult to fill, but we appreciated that it came with a small silicone funnel to help. We also liked that this blender was easy to turn on and off with one click of a button. It withstood being placed in a duffel bag and dropped five times onto concrete. It did begin to leak on the 45th smoothie, but that was a lot to ask of a machine likely intended for simpler tasks, such as making one smoothie a day or a few batches of frozen drinks at the beach.

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This ultradurable cooler outpaced every other model in cooling and durability, but it’s a bit heavy for the average person. Ice lasted a whole week, and when we placed sodas and ice packs inside, the cooler kept our beverages below 50 degrees for more than five days. We also loved its rubber latches, which were easy to close, and its durable rope handles. The cooler’s weight did make it fairly difficult for one person to carry when full, and it didn’t fit all our groceries or soda cans (it could fit only 24 cans, along with ice packs). However, if you’re looking for a smaller cooler that holds all the essentials, this is an excellent option.

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This budget-friendly model did a decent job of cooling, keeping ice for six days—longer than any other product priced under $100.00. Its wheels made it more portable, and its roomy interior easily held a weekend's worth of groceries. We liked that the side handles were molded into the body, which prevented them from breaking when dropped. The telescoping handle you use to roll the cooler (like a luggage handle) wasn't so durable, though; one of the poles dented after we dropped the cooler, which prevented us from pushing the handle down and obstructed the lid from opening fully.

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The newer version of our former winner works just as well as the original. In a 90-degree room, this tote kept orange juice safely below 40 degrees for 2 hours. This was no surprise, given its moderate size, thick layer of insulating foam, and additional gauze-like filler designed to maintain the bag’s interior temperature. Its square, flat design and wide woven shoulder strap made it comfortable for short and tall testers alike. Though a faint yellow mustard stain remained, it showed no other signs of wear and tear.

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A smaller version of our favorite cake carrier, this collapsible plastic tote expanded to accommodate even our tallest Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie. Its large, nonskid base held 8-, 9-, and 10-inch pies perfectly in place, even on bumpy car rides. A bonus: It comes with two molded inserts for deviled eggs, one of which can be flipped upside down and used as a second tier for transporting two shorter pies at once. Its one slight fault: The latches took a little finessing to secure properly.

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These wraps provided a happy medium between a strong seal that kept food fresh and a relative lack of waxy residue left behind on our hands and bowls. Though cleaning them still took some scrubbing, they were easier to clean than their much stickier counterparts, and they resisted stains for the most part. They held up to washings well, retaining their clinging ability after more than 10 rounds of cleaning.

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This set of utensils has it all: a fork with effective, pointy tines; a sharp knife with many small serrations; and a perfectly shaped spoon. The fork cleanly punctured even the most delicate pieces of lettuce as well as the slippery pasta. Plus, this set is both sturdy and comfortable to hold and eat from. These utensils are made from a compostable and renewable resource, but keep in mind that they need to be commercially composted.

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A close runner-up, this set of utensils was almost as sturdy as our winning set and is the best option for those looking to buy a less expensive, smaller set. Each utensil is smooth and has flat handles that are comfortable to hold. Though the fork is a bit less sharp than the fork in our top-rated set, its tines are the sharpest of any plastic fork we tested. Its knife easily sliced through chicken. Finally, the spoon’s bowl is comfortably shaped.

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These plates, which are made from pulped and pressed sugarcane husks, were the roomiest of the bunch, with an 8-inch eating surface and a steep lip to keep food from crowding or spilling over. Thanks to their thick bottoms, they were impervious to pizza grease, had no trouble holding up 2 pounds of food, and didn’t budge when prodded with a fork or knife (though testers noticed a tiny bit of floppiness after food sat for 5 minutes, food was still safely contained).

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These recyclable cups were some of the most durable that we tried. They didn’t crack when we squeezed them, weren’t damaged by soda or alcohol that we let sit in them for hours, and remained upright when jostled. Their tapered shape and rounded rims made these cups secure to hold and comfortable to drink from. They’re a great option if you’re in need of disposable drinkware.  More on this test

Our favorite commercially compostable cups were almost as comfortable to drink from and as durable as our top-rated plastic model, with a couple minor differences. Their rims were a touch thicker, and the cups developed a small crack at the rim when we squeezed them repeatedly when empty. Otherwise, these cups felt secure in our hands, held up to repeated squeezing when full, and weren’t damaged by soda or alcohol. If you have access to a composting service, these cups are an excellent option; however, the manufacturer does not recommend composting them at home.

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These disposable bowls were durable and easy to use, but their rims were small, so they were tougher to grab and lift than our winner. Outside of that, we found these bowls to be easy to hold and eat from, thanks to their wide bases and short walls. They were also durable and weren’t damaged by disposable utensils or hot or cold foods because of their waterproof coating. The size of these smaller bowls makes them excellent for side dishes or desserts.

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