Why taking a picnic is a better option than visiting the motorway services

Family PicnicDo you stop to have a picnic when travelling or it is straight into the motorway service station? Lets be honest, picnics do require thinking about beforehand, but it doesn’t need to take hours and they don’t need to cost a fortune. Once you’re prepared, the food is there whenever or wherever the children scream hunger. No need to fight the queues only to discover they don’t have what you want, you already have it, and you know eh children will like it. Picnics bring choice and freedom; you just need to find the perfect spot to stop.

If you’ve ever travelled through France, you will have no doubt seen signs for Aires de repos (rest areas). This can mean anything from a full motorway service station to a small layby, a little way off the motorway with just a few picnic tables, and potentially toilets (not always). Either way, the one thing nearly all Aires have in common, is the picnic table. Families pulling out their tablecloth and setting up a full picnic lunch is a common sight in France, yet not so much on the UK.

Why not?

At UK motorway service stations there is rarely a picnic table to be seen, let alone a dedicated area away from the general commotion of the car park and people rushing to get in and out as quickly as possible. May be that’s the reason… in France, lunch is to be savoured and enjoyed at a leisurely pace, even when travelling, rather than the necessity that so often dictates eating on the run here in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, the fuel stations in France, sell just as many jambon et fromage baguettes as we sell sausage rolls (if not more), but they also have the option to stop and linger if that’s what families prefer.

Aside from the lack of picnic tables at motorway services stations, there is still a general reluctance to get off the motorway and find a suitable picnic stop here in the UK. Often picnics with family and friends are significant events: birthdays, get-togethers, sporting occasions, which all require planning, and shopping and preparation. So is the thought of more planning, and shopping and preparation before going on holiday just too much hassle? Do we already have enough ‘stuff’ in the car without adding more?

The advantages

There’s no getting away from the fact a picnic does require a small amount of thought and preparation, but it doesn’t have to be grand affair… much of what you’ll need, you’ll be taking in the car already.

  • Food you know your children will eat and enjoy
  • No waiting to be served with hangry kids (and adults for that matter)
  • Outdoor space to run around and play before getting back in the car
  • Creates memories… picnics are not an everyday occasions, so they automatically have a special feel to them
  • Children enjoy the element of freedom… eating outdoors; let them choose what they put on their plate, allow them to eat cake before sandwiches; eating with their hands
  • If the dog is travelling with you, they’ll always be welcome
  • With the current pandemic, eating outdoors is the perfect option for many

Essential items

  • Picnic blanket (ideally with a waterproof backing); or picnic chairs if you prefer and have room in the car
  • Cool bag/box… any bag will do, simply be aware of packing food/drink that may spoil in the warmer weather
  • Food and drink
  • A ball, vortex, cricket set or similar outdoor games to play
  • Sun cream
  • Extra layers to accommodate the British weather… picnicking in cooler weather can still be fun, and if the weather is really bad, there’s always the car!

Ideal foods

Food you all enjoy and ideally can eat with your hands:

  • French baguette is perfect to pull apart and share along with meat and cheese; alternatively pre-made sandwiches
  • Savoury snacks
  • Vegetable sticks and dips
  • Quiches/pies
  • Fruit that doesn’t squash too easily
  • Soups or hot dog in thermos flasks on colder days
  • Flapjacks or similar treat (nothing too soft and squidgy, or that will melt)
  • Drinks in refillable bottles
  • Reusable plates, cutlery if you need it
  • Small bag to collect rubbish in
  • Wipes, kitchen roll and hand sanitiser

Make it easy for yourself

If you like the idea of a picnic but you’ve haven’t got time for the extra preparation, many farm shops now sell pre-prepared picnic baskets; you can often specify any dietary requirements. All you need is to pick it up beforehand and you’re ready to go. If there’s not enough room in the car for the extra food, check out a farm shop on route and order from there instead. Many farm stops have picnic areas and tables that they’ll allow you to eat at if you’ve purchased your picnic from them, as well as providing the added advantage of additional facilities.

Graze boxes are also extremely popular at the moment, which again can be ordered and delivered directly to you the day before and will provide the ideal memorable meal for your special journey.

Where to stop

Unfortunately picnic areas are not signposted off major roadways here in the UK, so you will need to have a plan beforehand. If you’re a member of the National Trust, they welcome picnickers at many of their sites and information can easily be found online. They are many versions of ’ top ten picnic spots across Britain’ published each year and again can be easily found online. Whether any of these locations are close to a motorway junction however, is a different matter. ** Spoiler alert ** see the Chocolate and Chips plug below…

An alternative picnic spot is one of the many Country Parks dotted along the length and breadth of Britain and managed by local Councils.  Most country parks have open access to wide open space sometimes with animals grazing/free to roam, heathland, woodland/sculpture trails, play areas, small cafes serving hot drinks, ice creams and simple snacks, have easy access parking (can be chargeable), welcome well-behaved dogs and have the all-important toilet facilities onsite. During summer months, the parks are often open later into the evening making them an  ideal stop for tea-time picnics.

Or…check out the ‘picnic’ filter option on Chocolate and Chips’ search facility and see which venues we recommend as suitable spots for picnics.

The downside

The biggest concern for families picnicking, is access to toilet and changing facilities. Depending on where you stop and your requirements, you may be able to access suitable facilities onsite or close by, but it’s always worth checking before you travel or make a detour.

Give it a go…

July is National Picnic Month, so why not get out there, enjoy the fresh air and give it a try. The freedom and choice a picnic provides could be the start of a new family tradition and a host of cherished memories. Make your stop part of the journey, enjoy the time together, rather than rushing to your destination. Holidays/days out are all about taking a break from the norm, taking life at a slower pace, enjoying your surroundings and the people you’re with… picnicking is just the start.