Whether it's at a park, on a beach or in your own garden, the best picnics, says Sara Deseran, are made up of bits of this and bites of that. So pull out that Tupperware, it's time to party

There's something about abandoning the formalities of the dining-room and taking it outdoors that just makes food taste better. Utensils are optional; so are tables and chairs. What matters most isn't a pressed-linen tablecloth or crystal glasses, but a beautiful vista and the shade of a tree.

There's something about abandoning the formalities of the dining-room and taking it outdoors that just makes food taste better. Utensils are optional; so are tables and chairs. What matters most isn't a pressed-linen tablecloth or crystal glasses, but a beautiful vista and the shade of a tree.

One of the joys of picnicking is that there are no hard and fast rules. The idyllic scene you see in films (you know, the one with a wicker basket and a red-and-white-checked blanket laid out in a breezy meadow dotted with poppies) is just one of countless scenarios. In real life, a picnic is just as likely to be a reward at the end of a long hike, a garden barbecue under a low-slung oak, or a romantic packed lunch for two in a city park.

Perhaps the hardest thing about a picnic is deciding what to make. Last-minute cooking is out; you have to think about what will hold up for a couple hours out of the fridge. And unfortunately, the casual element often lowers everyone's standards, relegating it to a spread of fizzy drinks, quiches and crisps. But creating a great picnic doesn't mean trying to recreate a formal lunch in the wilds of nature, there are other ways to make eating al fresco just as memorable as a dinner party.

The best picnics are made up of bits and bites of this and that. A nibble here of good and salty prosciutto draped over a juicy slice of melon, a bite there of bracing crisp pickles and a handful of nuts. With a little forethought and these simple chuck-in-a-Tupperware recipes, a platter of delicious cheeses and hunks of crusty breads, you're all set in no time at all.

And while food is the centrepiece, on hot days, a good refreshing drink can be the highlight of the menu, and that can be a homemade soft-drink such as my honey-ginger lemonade as much as a crisp white wine or a light beer. *

Sara Deseran's 'Picnics', published by Chronicle Books, priced £9.99, is in bookshops now, to order a copy by mail-order, tel: 01476 541 080

Quick pickled veggies

Crunchy and colourful, these pickles can be made from any mix of crisp vegetables. The garlic and ginger give them a good bit of heat. Serve with cheese and cured meats for a light lunch.

Serves 6-8

225g/8oz cauliflower florets
225g/8oz 1cm/1/2in-thick
carrot slices
225g/8oz 2cm/1in-thick small courgette slices
115g/4oz each green and red pepper cut into 2cm/1in squares
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
600ml/18fl oz water
600ml/18fl oz white-wine vinegar
180ml/6fl oz unseasoned rice vinegar
115g/4oz sugar
6cm/21/2in piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin slices
7 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
11/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

Combine the vegetables and the tarragon in a wide-mouthed jar and set aside. Bring the water, wine vinegar, rice vinegar, sugar, ginger, garlic, salt, mustard seeds and red pepper flakes to a boil in a large pan. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Bring to a boil again and pour the hot liquid over the vegetables. Stir occasionally while the mixture cools, then cover and refrigerate. Wait at least three days before eating, stirring every once in a while to keep all of the vegetables submerged. When serving, avoid the ginger and warn people about the garlic.

Mixed olives with orange and coriander

Slivers of peel and a mixture of green and black olives of all sizes make this mix as pretty to look at as it is appealing to eat. For green olives, look for picholine; for black, tiny, mild niçoise and big meaty kalamata are easy to find. Make sure to get unseasoned olives, packed in brine rather than dried.

Serves 6

750g/1lb 8oz unpitted olives, a mixture of both green and black, large and small 2 tablespoons olive oil
6 thin strips of lemon peel
6 thin strips of orange peel
2 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon each finely chopped orange and lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 bay leaf

Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl, cover, and marinate refrigerated for at least two days, stirring occasionally.

French lentils with roasted beetroot and pancetta

You need French lentils (versus brown, red or yellow) for this recipe as they still have their seed coat so don't easily turn to mush. Although you could use red beetroot, I prefer golden because it doesn't dye everything they touch a shade of pink. To keep the fried pancetta crisp, pack it for the picnic in a separate container, tossing it with the salad at the last minute.

Serves 4-6

450g/1lb golden beetroot, trimmed
350g/12oz dried French lentils
1/4 of a small onion
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
8 slices pancetta (or bacon)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
60g/2oz crumbled fresh goat cheese (optional)

For the dressing

120ml/4fl oz virgin olive oil
60ml/2fl oz red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Place the beetroot in a roasting pan and fill with about 1cm ( 1/2in) of water. Cover with foil and roast for 1 hour, or until a knife inserted into the centre of a beetroot indicates that it's cooked through. Remove from the oven, let cool and slip the skins off. Cut into 1cm (0.5in) cubes.

Rinse the lentils, removing any pebbles. Place in a pan with water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and add the onion, garlic, bay leaf and salt. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the lentils are just tender (they'll still be slightly firm). Remove from the heat and sit for 10 minutes. Drain off remaining water in a colander and remove the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Let cool.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the pancetta or bacon . Sauté for five to 10 minutes, or until crisp. Remove to a paper towel, let cool. Use your hands to crumble.

To make the dressing: whisk together the oil and vinegar with the garlic. Season to taste and let sit for about 10 minutes to infuse the garlic, whisking again before dressing the lentils. Remove the garlic.

To assemble: toss together the lentils, beetroot and parsley, adding the dressing as desired. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Toss with the pancetta and goat cheese just before serving.

Honey-ginger lemonade

Honey, fresh ginger and lemons were meant for each other and this is the ultimate way to show them off together. Try making it with lavender honey.

Serves 8

1 litre/32fl oz water
360ml/12fl oz honey
200g/7oz sugar
115g/4oz finely chopped
fresh ginger
720ml/24fl oz freshly squeezed lemon juice

Bring half the water plus the honey, sugar and ginger to a boil in a pan. Allow to simmer for a couple of minutes until the sugar and honey are dissolved. Remove from the heat. Leave to stand for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain and combine with the lemon juice in a large pitcher. Let cool completely. Add the remaining water. The lemonade should be tart-sweet at this point. Chill. Transport to a Thermos and serve in a pitcher over lots of ice at the picnic, taking into consideration that some of the ice will melt and dilute the lemonade.