The Pleasures of Eating Outdoors

"Food tastes better outside," my mother always said, and she's right.

eating breakfast outside
Eating breakfast outside.

Katherine Martinko

"Food tastes better outside." This is what my mother always told me whenever I grumbled about having to carry a stack of plates, a handful of cutlery, and a precarious tower of glasses out to the wooden table on the deck. She was a passionate outdoor eater, never failing to take an opportunity to move our family meals out of the house. 

It usually started in March, when the wintry sun hinted at warmth and enough snow had melted that we could sit on the front steps and balance bowls of soup on our knees for lunch. Sometimes it was even warm enough to take off our coats and sit in only our sweaters, which felt almost scandalous – so few layers of clothing!

By the time May rolled around, we ate most dinners on the screened porch to escape the hordes of black flies and mosquitoes that descended on our corner of Ontario every spring. Sometimes it was cold and we had to bundle up, but it was worth it to hear the chorus of spring peepers coming from the lake, not to mention the buzz of bloodthirsty insects that couldn't get at us from the other side of the screen.

July and August were the true glory days of outdoor eating. With the sun shining till after 9 o’clock, we'd linger on the porch for hours, revelling in the warmth, the "crepuscular" light (as one dinner guest told me and I've never forgotten), and the selection of seasonal ingredients that had finally burst out of the cold Canadian ground – asparagus, salad greens, strawberries, rhubarb, peas, and, eventually, the delicious glut of zucchini, tomatoes, corn, and basil.

We ate on the porch throughout September, watching the leaves of the trees around us change color with cooling temperatures. The sun set earlier, but we'd add candles to the picnic table to create a bubble of visual warmth. If we were really lucky, we'd be able to have Thanksgiving dinner outside (it's the second weekend in October here in Canada), usually on the screen porch, but once we even set up the table on the dock. That was special, but we had to be careful not to push back our chairs too quickly or we might end up in the chilly water.

Childhood habits die hard, and I've continued the practice of outdoor eating with my own family. Now that it's June (and that awful polar vortex that descended on Ontario last month has finally gone away), every dinner is enjoyed outside on the back deck. My kids understand that "setting the table" means doing it outside, unless it's raining. We take it seriously – tablecloth and all – and embrace the challenges that come with outdoor eating, such as flies in my wine, thieving chipmunks, and loud battling blue jays overhead.

outdoor dinner party
Eating outside with kids also means less mess to clean up. Katherine Martinko 

My mom is right: there is something about outdoor eating that makes the meal taste better. I think it's because we're forced out of our usual indoor element, away from the messy kitchen and the toys on the floor and the cellphones lighting up on the counter, and into a zone that's exclusively dedicated to eating. It's a physical departure from the norm that sets the tone for the meal. The children seem calmer (as children so often do outside), the conversation flows more smoothly, and we're all more focused on the flavors of the food. The entire experience is more pleasant than when we eat inside.

I don't limit it to dinner, either. We often eat breakfast and lunch outside, especially on weekends. We organize picnic meals in other locations, taking food to a beach or a lookout point or a nice park. Sometimes it's something as minor as carrying a camp stove, a moka pot, and some freshly ground coffee into a remote location, whether we're traveling by bike, canoe or snowshoe, and having a leisurely coffee break in the wilderness. (The kids get hot chocolate.) Those are the best coffees I've ever tasted, beating swanky coffee shop lattes by a long shot, and I know it's just because I'm outside.

All this is to say, if you're not already an outdoor eater, you should give it a try. Especially after so many months of being cooped up inside, even the smallest effort to eat on a back deck or the front steps or a balcony can make a meal feel special. It breaks up the day, gets some sunshine and fresh air on your skin, and will boost your spirits.