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Picnic like a pro with expert tips, tricks and recipes

This make-ahead picnic guide has sandwiches, spreads, salads, sweets and sips.
Make the ultimate summery spread for a special occasion.
Make the ultimate summery spread for a special occasion.Courtesy Will Coleman
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to entertaining, I like to keep it simple, especially during the summer: quick recipes, affordable ingredients and if something can be made ahead, even better.

One of my favorite ways to entertain this time of year is to throw an epic picnic with all the meat, cheese, fruit and — of course — something to satisfy my persistent sweet tooth.

Throughout the years, I've collected my favorite make-ahead tips, tricks, recipes and stories that make hosting a picnic a breeze — and I'm putting them to the test for my 21st birthday picnic in New York City's Washington Square Park. (Spoiler alert: It was epic!)

In this make-ahead picnic guide, I've included some of my favorite recipes, such as my Charcuterie Sandwiches, Pearl Couscous Watermelon Salad, Roasted Grape and Mascarpone Toast, Salted Caramel Cannoli Dip and Charred Plum and Jicama Sangria — all perfect for making the day before your big day.

Pro picnic tips

1. Lighten your load.

Coordinate with your guests to bring picnic essentials like blankets, trash bags, disposable plates, water, wine and anything else that you might need. After all, you cooked all of the food — they can bring all the other stuff!

2. Set the mood.

Take some time (or ask enlist a guest) to curate a playlist that will match your event's vibe — and don't forget a speaker.

3. Keep food fresh and safe.

Traveling with food can be intimidating, so take the time to properly pick a vessel, such as a cooler on wheels or cooler backpack, to keep your hot foods hot and cold foods cold. And be sure to pack your hot foods separately from your cold foods.

4. Wait to assemble some of your dishes.

The last thing you want is a soggy sandwich, so hold off on adding condiments and fillings to sandwiches until you arrive. If there's a textural component to any of your dips or salads, bring the crunchy aspect — croutons, nuts, chips — in a separate container.

Make-ahead picnic recipes

Charcuterie Sandwiches

I'm giving this picnic classic an easy and accessible upgrade. When entertaining on the go, the first I crave is sliced meats, cheeses and spreads, but the last thing I want to do is spend time artfully assembling a fancy charcuterie board. These sandwiches are the very happy compromise I made with myself.

When eating outside during the hot summer months, it's essential to have light and refreshing dishes. This salad not only checks that box but also holds up in the fridge for days before you're ready to serve it. So, if you're looking for a salad that brightens up your whole spread, toss this one up.

Roasted Grape and Mascarpone Toast

This recipe proves that you only need a handful of fresh ingredients to create a dish that will please a hungry crowd. My unexpected love for roasted grapes was inspired by Sheldrick Holmes, my mentor and the owner of the Grail Café in Chicago. The simple combo of sweet Champagne grapes and creamy mascarpone will bring a new world of flavor to your appetizers.

Salted Caramel Cannoli Dip

My love for cannolis was sparked on my first trip to NYC. The combination of the flaky, fried pastry dough, sweet and creamy ricotta and crunchy chocolate is impossible to beat. I'm putting an on-the-go twist on this Sicilian classic by whipping together all the components into a dip served with pretzels, crushed waffle cones, brownie crisps and fruit.

Charred Plum and Jicama Sangria

My main goal when entertaining is to create a menu that leaves an impression from start to finish. Oftentimes, when it comes to picnics, cocktails are overlooked. I created this sangria recipe to remedy that. It is incredibly memorable and bursting with fresh, bold, summer flavors such as charred plum and sweet mint syrup. It's perfect for any occasion — from something celebratory to a quiet night in.