How (not) to have the perfect family car picnic

I must officially be middle-aged, because my new favourite meal involves an estate car, a flask of tea, a packet of chocolate digestives, and a few snack-sized pork pies. That’s right, we’re now official a car picnic family! Only problem is we’re rubbish at it.

This all started a few weeks ago when we visited yet another National Trust property (we’re trying very hard to become cultured) and I was too tight-fisted to empty my back account to fund a pot of tea in the cafe, or sell a vital organ so the three of us could afford to share a sandwich. So we boiled the kettle, dusted off our old picnic hamper, stopped off at Tesco for some cheap nibbles, and took our own mobile restaurant with us in the form of my shiny new Vauxhall Astra Estate. My God, I’m such a dad.

We had a pleasant ramble around Wimpole Estate, fed the pigs, patted the horses and cooed at the newborn lambs, then headed back to the car for our sophisticated al fresco meal – which is when we realised what a harrowing experience sharing a car picnic with a toddler is. NOTHING is as easy as it used to be. Allow me to explain:

DO NOT… forget to pack a bib

You know how adult picnics are civilised affairs where people nibble food politely and chat about the weather and how wonderfully grown-up we all are? One-year-olds don’t do that. They mash up food exactly the same way they do at home, then smear it all over themselves, then throw it around a bit. Then do all of that again. And again. And again.

DO NOT… leave your car interior uncovered

We’ve got a white jack russell terrier who loves dropping fur, so I’ve got a detachable boot cover that keeps the little devil at bay. But that didn’t stop Sonny once the car picnic kicked off. When he wasn’t dribbling water or throwing cheese butties around the car, he was mashing strawberries into every crevice he could find. (Another tip: strawberries are a horrifically bad choice of fruit for eating in cars).

DO NOT… bother taking any fancy cutlery

Someone bought us a wonderfully pretentious picnic hamper a few years ago full of all sorts of fancy nonsense like porcelain mugs and plates, little salt and pepper shakers, and even champagne glasses; but we didn’t dare open it once on this trip. If there’s one thing I know about my little wrecking machine, it’s that there’s nothing he’d have loved more than smashing all of that stuff straight into the gravel. I did at one point use one of the mugs to pour myself a cup of tea, then tried to rest it on top of the car and spilt the contents all over the roof when I tripped on the dog’s lead. Shambles.

DO NOT… forget spare nappies and a change mat

You know how gross it is changing a baby in public toilets? Imagine doing it in the back of your car, with your lunch scattered all around you, and around 200 pensioners judging you.

DO NOT… forget the dog’s lunch

Because he’s just going to want to eat all of yours instead. Then bark and whimper when he doesn’t get it.

DO NOT… forget to pack books or toys

Because kids get bored as quickly outside of the house as they do inside it. And they couldn’t care less about classic picnic chitchat like “Hey Sonny, isn’t that a lovely horse chestnut tree” or “Haven’t the swifts come back early this year”. If you don’t keep them entertained, they’re going to go mental!

DO NOT… think you’ll be able to sit still for a second

In between constantly cleaning Sonny’s face, clothes and my own car boot; trying to stop our insane toddler from diving headfirst out of the car onto the stony ground; preventing the dog from ransacking the picnic hamper or peeing on the car next to us; and generally trying not to have a nervous breakdown – I think there was around a 5-second spell on our first car picnic when I sat down, stared at the scenery and sunshine and thought “Ahhh, this is nice.” Then Sonny puked on his own hands, the dog barked at an old lady, and it all kicked off again.

DO NOT… be put off by one bad car picnic experience

Like everything with kids, our first family car picnic felt stressful at the time but ultimately was great fun. And you always know next time you try something it’ll be a little bit easier. So you keep doing it again and again until you get good at it. Because we’re plucky Brits – and that’s what we do with everything!

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