A long, long time ago I was a child. My childhood was different from a lot of others — there were only four of us in my family, we moved around a lot for my father’s work and my parents embraced cultural experiences.
It was not unusual for us to throw a party whose guests were only ourselves — yet we still cooked an elaborate feast and dressed up as if we were entertaining visiting dignitaries.
We visited museums, cathedrals, historic sites and ate all kinds of ethnic foods. Today this is not so unusual, but in the 60’s it was definitely not the norm. My childhood memories are almost exclusively about extraordinary experiences. One of those treasured memories is a picnic in the snow.
A preposterous idea sticks
I remember my mother thinking that my father was crazy for suggesting this preposterous idea. I remember a pine forest park, clearing 6” of snow from the picnic table and trying to keep warm sitting on its ice-cold benches. This picnic in the snow has remained family lore, passed down two generations now, to my children and my granddaughter. For our family, winter picnics are a recipe for great memories: start with loved ones, add a little challenge — something that pushes your comfort zone — sprinkle in images of togetherness and laughter, add a pinch of nature’s fragrances and textures and top it off with delicious food.
Passing down a tradition
The first winter picnic with my own children was part of our annual trek into the snowy woods in search of the elusive “perfect Christmas tree.” My husband was a bit of humbug and wasn’t excited about the adventure, but the kids were all in! Expecting everyone to be cold and hungry, I packed some warm and tasty snacks. The food was never the main character in these ventures, but I brought thermoses of hot cider, bean soup and cookies and made sure what I offered was food my family loved. After tromping around in the thigh-high snow, falling, laughing and losing the feeling in our hands, we brushed off some old stumps for our impromptu table and seating and enjoyed our lunch. I remember it being delicious, but let’s be honest, doesn’t food always taste better outdoors?
It’s about the food AND the adventure
Remember, when you plan a winter picnic, you are planning an experience and, if you are fortunate, stories that will live far into the future.
The first step is to pick your place. You don’t need to head to the mountains. Seattle has many wonderful parks, lots of them with tables and shelters. Seward Park is a great place for beginners and there’s a winter picnic bonus: many of the shelters have grills. Lincoln Park in West Seattle is another terrific option, with tables and shelters in the forest above and waterside grilling shelters in the lower park. So build a fire and cook up something fresh and hot. Even simple hotdogs on sticks and toasted marshmallows take on an exciting new taste in winter.
If you have a propane camping stove, perfect! Your options for a hot-food winter picnic just grew. Stay in the city or head to the mountains that surround the Puget Sound.
Foods to warm them up
There is some art to picnicking in winter — sandwiches and a cooler of sodas just won’t cut it. But you do want to keep your menu simple and bring food that is hearty and warming. Our family has found these foods to be great winter picnic partners:
- soups or stews kept hot in a thermos or heated over a fire
- wraps, in foil to be warmed over a fire
- grilled sandwiches kept warm in an insulated bag
- simple loaves of bread, cheese, olives
- warm beverages like hot cider or cocoa
- always a sweet treat at the end
Kill two birds with one winter picnic
With the right gear, tires and fortitude, you can expand your winter repast with a task or challenge. When my kids were young we loved to head to Verlot Ranger Station (now the Verlot Public Service Center) in Granite Falls where we’d purchase a tree tag. From there we’d head up a forest road until we found just the right place to park, then walk, snowshoe or just posthole in the snow until we felt tired and hungry. At that point I’d bring out the goodies. Along the way we’d keep our eyes peeled and collect greenery that would bring the outdoors into our house in winter.
Invite kids to look deeply
Winter picnics will become part of your family’s storyboard. So invite everyone in your family to collect the details of an event:
- Make a point of noticing bird calls and any animal tracks.
- Ask kids to consider what the air smells like.
- Present questions for them to ponder: Is the light reflecting off the water or the snow?
- If someone does something brave or funny or goofs up, invite each child to write their version of the story. It will all become part of the lore they pass on.
Case in point for the latter suggestion: I know of a woman who cut down a tree and after dragging it for close to an hour back to the car discovered it was way too large to get in or even on top of the car. Some major surgery was required to bring that big-game trophy home! Having seen a lot of green in a lot of forests, I am certain that tree looked much smaller out in the woods. And now it’s part of her family’s storyboard, a part her children love to retell year after year.
Picnicing in winter is fun, invigorating, sometimes frustrating, but always an adventure. Keep your adventure safe:
- Have a plan in case your car gets stuck in snow.
- Tell someone not on your trip where you are going.
- Be prepared for the weather.
- Dress in layers, including waterproof outer layers and footwear, gloves and hats.
- Keep extra clothes and blankets in your car and extra socks for wet feet.
- Have a fully charged cellphone with you.
- Along with delicious food, carry a daypack with the remaining nine hiking essentials: a navigation tool, extra water, extra socks or clothing, a first aid kit, a knife, matches or other firestarter, a light emergency bivy, headlamp and sunscreen (yes, even in winter).
Try something new and different this year. Plan a winter picnic and if your kids grumble and complain, just tell them “We’re creating forever memories! You’re welcome!”