Eat Outside More: Here’s How

This article originally appeared on 29 September 2021.

No matter how much quality time we’re getting outside, some more wouldn’t hurt. Many studies show spending time outdoors improves the health of our mind and bodies. And since we have to eat everyday, why not link our outside-time along with meals? Al fresco dining isn’t as comfortable as we’ve become accustomed to in our climate controlled interior worlds, but it can still be incredibly pleasant in ways that eating inside can never be.

Eating outside offers up sounds, smells, and sensations we just can’t get in a sealed room. Sunshine, wind, dirt underfoot, bugs flying, flowers blooming, glittering snow… Getting outside our comfort zone bombards our senses and we notice things we otherwise wouldn’t. Like the tang of the tomato sauce, the texture of the fish, the sharpness of the carbonation, and maybe how full we already are?

Perhaps when we think of al fresco dining, we think of Mediterranean cafés, the deck of a cruise ship, or bazaar food carts, but eating outside need not be exotic. We can do it in our backyards, at the park, and on our lunch breaks. I understand different environments and mobilities will affect us all uniquely. Some of us won’t be able to integrate eating outside into our daily routines. But if you can, step out and try something new. The trick is to keep it simple.

When we’re out and about, we can choose a restaurant with outdoor seating, but that isn’t the only option. We can pack a meal to-go and then a bench, a curb, or a blanket is all we need. Eating outside during work hours can break up the day nicely and rejuvenate us as if fresh air equals a fresh start. I recommend packing a washable cloth napkin and real silverware if you need. Simple luxuries will enhance the experience.

With that said, don’t go overboard, even at home where inside table service is close at hand. We don’t need to recreate a 5-star dining experience in the backyard. Pretend you’ll be eating with your eyes closed; it’s all about the tastes and feeling. Or choose the simplest meals outside — morning coffee on the stoop, take-out pizza eaten over the box, or a walk with an ice cream cone.

Some misconceptions about eating outside:

  • The weather doesn’t need to be perfect. Inside, things are usually the same and boring. Outside, things are always changing and interesting. Even in regions without big seasonal changes, the day has its own cycles. These fluctuations make us appreciate different aspects of food. A chill breeze in the air makes hot soup more scrumptious. A muggy atmosphere perfectly juxtaposes a crisp bread crust.
  • You don’t need fancy decks, patios, or furniture. A blanket in the grass, a picnic table in the driveway, or a foldable chair nearly anywhere will do. A big umbrella could be nice, but sunglasses and a hat can work, too. Work with what you’ve got.
  • It doesn’t need to be close to the kitchen. Proximity can fall under the “convenience fallacy”. Use a tray or pack a bag. It’s less likely to matter how far the cooking is from the eating if we only have to make one trip.
  • It doesn’t have to be as clean as an indoor eating experience. This is going to vary a lot depending on personal tolerance levels, but I’ll just say this: connecting with nature is part of the allure!

Some tips:

  • Have a dedicated spot. Knowing where we can outside eliminates a road block. If we have a place to go, it’s easier to say ‘yes, let’s eat outside’.
  • Use a paperweight or rock, something heavy and weatherproof. I keep one outside for napkins, straw wrappers, take-out bags, etc., rather than piling feathery items under my plate. Chasing down garbage is never pleasant, but especially not when we’re really hungry. 
  • Use a cutting board or sturdy tray. Size is arguably most important. I looked around a lot before finding a tray big enough for my family of five in a restaurant supply store. 

Suggested supplies:

  • Reusable plastic or aluminum tableware. I recommend this mostly for people with children. Kids can be clumsy and since the outside is usually rougher, it can be damaging to our crockery. I use plastic plates and bowls that are part of our camping set. 
  • A blanket for eating on the ground. I recommend something thick enough it won’t get holes, but light enough to carry around thrown over a shoulder or folded into a tote bag. Make sure it’s washable — the blanket will get dirty so we won’t.
  • Insulated lunch box or soft cooler for traveling. Woven picnic baskets are cute, but rarely practical — space is limited, yet it takes up a lot of storage space when not in use. My soft insulated cooler can be stuffed to the gills and zipped closed, and then folded down flat to store.

Most of us probably don’t need to buy anything to eat outside. We can use things already found in our kitchens. The most helpful things to have while eating outside is a sense of adventure and a laissez-faire attitude. Maybe we will be a little inconvenienced by eating outside, but convenience isn’t always the goal. Experiences are what we live and what we remember. Bon appétit!

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