After considering dozens of picnic baskets and testing seven over the past three years, we’ve concluded there’s no perfect basket out there. A soft cooler, in fact, might be a more functional choice for long afternoons in the park or at the beach. But if you really want a basket that looks great and comes with table settings, we think your best bet is the Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket with Cutlery Set. It folds flat for storage, stays upright when empty, and is roomier and more insulated than any other picnic basket we tried. The included glasses, plates, flatware, and napkins are also nicer than those of other sets.
This slightly less expensive version of the Picnic at Ascot basket foregoes the plates, glasses, flatware, and napkins. It has the same clever folding design, sturdy handles, and deep interior. The front pocket is slightly different, and it doesn’t have interior holders for glasses. It’s a good choice if you prefer to upgrade to enamelware plates or if you don’t like mixing table settings with the food.
If you’re looking for a picnic blanket, we recommend a couple in our full guide to picnic blankets. And if you’re hunting for other items for outdoor cooking and picnicking, see our Great Gear for Picnics and Grilling guide.
We looked over as many editorial reviews as we could find but many of them chose aesthetic over function with their preference for wicker baskets. Reviews like Foodal, the Independent, Real Simple, and HuffPost Home all seemed to pick the same type of Instagram-ready baskets. In our opinion, baskets like this aren’t the best. They won’t insulate your food, they’re harder to pack, and they are prone to breaking unless you have a good place to store them.
The beauty of a picnic basket, in part, is that it’s an organized way to carry plates, glasses, flatware, and some food so you always have it ready to go when you want (concert in the park, after-work picnic, etc). With that in mind, we looked for baskets that came with place settings as well as insulated compartments for keeping food cold.
Since you’ll likely only use a basket during part of the year, we also wanted to find ones that store easily. We looked for baskets that folded nicely or that had a slim profile, such as totes and picnic backpacks.
After researching over 25 models on our own, we narrowed our list down to seven and tested them for their durability, design, aesthetic appeal, and utility. And then we had a picnic. (In fact, we had a few.) We packed hot and cold food, carried the baskets through parks and on beaches, and sat with them for hours in the sun, because our job is very difficult. What we found was that few modern baskets are easy to use, look great, and are simple to put away once the picnic is over.
Even though we weren’t thrilled with the picnic baskets we researched and tested, we think the Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket with Cutlery Set is the best option available. It’s built better than many baskets we looked at, and its collapsible design makes it easier to store in offseasons. The aluminum frame and reinforced sides that keep the basket upright, even when empty, make it easier to fill than other collapsible baskets. And its table settings are sturdier than those included in other bags and baskets.
This bag’s polyester canvas exterior feels durable, and its zippers, snaps, and handles are less flimsy than on some bags (such as the Picnic at Ascot London Backpack for Four). It’s moderately well-insulated (with a waterproof lining) for keeping foods like salads and grapes chilled for a few hours and large enough to hold a decent-sized picnic for two or a small picnic for four. If you need something with more cooling power, we’d recommend you get a soft cooler and use that to lug your food, drinks, and plates to the park.
We particularly like that the Picnic at Ascot folds into an easily stowable flat package (5 inches high by 18.5 inches wide by 11.5 inches deep). Many of the insulated backpacks and totes we looked at could be folded or compressed, but the design of the Picnic at Ascot is just a bit more seamless and well thought out. Amazon reviewers mentioned liking its collapsible design in particular.
Compared to insulated totes that can slump in on themselves, we like that the Picnic at Ascot’s frame keeps the bag open, so it’s easy to fill. At 18.5 inches tall, the basket is deep enough to hold an upright bottle of wine, water, or other beverages.
This basket comes with plastic plates, acrylic glasses, stainless steel cutlery with plastic handles, and cotton napkins for four. All the servingware felt sturdier than those of other bags we tried. Not everyone likes acrylic glasses, but you don’t have to worry about breaking them, and some public parks don’t allow glass containers on their grass.
The basket does have a few drawbacks. It’s awkward to carry when full. Caleigh Waldman, picnic-goer and product tester, said, “the basket, when loaded with food and ice, was difficult and awkward to carry, especially over long distances.” Some testers didn’t like that the glasses are stored in the same compartment as the food. And we did find it a little difficult to fold and unfold the bag. But overall, we think the Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket with Cutlery Set is a pretty good picnicking accessory.
If you’re looking for a slightly less expensive basket, or you’d prefer to supply your own plates, flatware and glasses, the Picnic at Ascot Stylish Insulated Market Basket / Picnic Tote has the same great collapsable design as our main pick. It’s essentially the same basket, but without interior loops for holding glasses, tethers to keep the lid from flapping open, and the front pocket doesn’t have a flap.
We think this basket could be a particularly good option if you don’t like eating off plastic, as you could supply your own enamelware plates.
The Picnic Time Metro Insulated Basket holds about as much as our main pick, but it’s not as easy to pack food into because it isn’t as structured. The Picnic Time also has a drawstring closure instead of a zipper closure. While this allows you to overstuff it more than the Picnic at Ascot basket, it’s terrible at keeping things cold inside. A zip lid feels more secure.
The Tandoor Four Person Picnic Backpack by Picnic Plus is very big with two wine/water bottle pockets and easily enough room for a picnic for four. It’s well constructed in a utilitarian way. However, its place settings feel cheap, particularly the see-through plastic plates. Its larger size means it also takes up more storage space.
The Picnic at Ascot London Backpack for Four is better looking and has sturdier plateware than the Picnic Plus, but its cooler is uselessly small. It also has flimsy outer hardware and cheap-feeling shoulder straps. Ultimately, it’s just not worth the money.
We found that the Picnic Time Topanga wasn’t wide enough for typical flat, broad food containers.
We encountered the same problem with the Lido 2-in-1 Cooler Tote Bag as we did with the Picnic Time: It wasn’t wide enough.
We looked at a number of traditional wicker baskets but ultimately opted to skip them. Despite their chic appeal, they’re more form than function—the wicker isn’t insulated, so cold food might get hot (and vice versa).
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: April 20, 2016