Ahh, summertime in Washington: School's out, most of the Hill is in recess, and even if you're not on vacation, your boss probably is. How better to chill out than with picnic basket in hand?

Washingtonians of yore packed lunches and opera glasses to watch the first Battle of Bull Run (making fighting Beltway traffic a pleasure cruise by comparison), but picnicking can really be much more fun than that -- whether dining alone or with a date, a bunch of friends or a passel of kids.

In these high-tech days of cellphones and iPods, crackberrys and Xboxes, the picnic remains high among the pile of summer's simple pleasures, right up there with hammocks and baseball games on the radio. So here's how to turn any kind of spread into an Impressionist's masterpiece.

Solo al Fresco

Even those who otherwise hate dining alone -- the term is solomangarephobia -- can take heart in picnicking.

"Solo is the time I'd indulge the most," says John Burns, who wrote "The Urban Picnic" (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004, $21.95) with Elisabeth Caton. "A luxe food item -- say an imported, $3 piece of fruit -- might be the one thing you splurge on, or some decadent chocolate or a really nice foie gras." (Another guilty pleasure: You won't feel obligated to share.)

With no one to impress but yourself, indulge in some conveniences to keep schlepping all the gear simple. Vino from a box is one option, or pour your drink of choice into a wineskin or another portable beverage container for even lighter packing. A frozen water bottle can do double duty: a pre-picnic ice pack, and an after-affair drink.

With some music or good reading material, you've got instant diversion anywhere you choose to set a spell.

Dinner for Two

What Grandma called courtship, Match.com calls salesmanship, and any marketing major knows the importance of presentation in sealing the deal. So begin with a retro wicker basket and a clean picnic blanket.

When it comes to food, Burns warns not to go overboard. "What's going to impress them is that you've thought ahead," he says. "It's fine if you want to go to extremes, but the purpose isn't to wow them with complexity. The nuance is a question of degree."

Pick a theme, perhaps one that complements your venue: For outdoor concerts at Wolf Trap or on the Mall, choose regional favorites that are in sync with the music -- be it barbecue for bluegrass, or po' boys for zydeco. If you're off to see some Shakespeare in the park, research recipes for pease porridge or gooseberry fool pudding, and wash it down with a mulled wine.

Anything that indicates you've given a bit of extra effort is romantic unto itself, and food's only one part. For music -- the Bard's food of love -- an MP3 player and speakers offer a playlist that runs deep into the evening, though a small boombox with CDs works, too.

Picnic Posse

A day's outing to someplace like Glen Echo Park or Sandy Point Beach can be plenty of fun for a crowd, and more's the merrier when it comes to outdoor movies or tailgating. But proper provisions are imperative when feeding a large group: "Have an enormous amount of food," Burns says. "Everyone's digging in and relaxed. It's astonishing how much food you can get through that way."

Devise a menu that fits your flock. If adults are meeting for Screen on the Green, plan for pasta salads, watermelon and other dishes that feed many without too hefty a price tag. If it's a kid's outing, think of food to keep them fueled.

"With kids, it's all about protein," Burns says, "getting something good in them so they don't melt down." One suggestion for diminutive diners? Kid kabobs -- simple, bite-sized pieces of meat, veggies or anything else that can be tossed on a skewer. Perfect for older tots and tweens, this idea makes for easy clean-up, too. (Baby wipes also come in handy no matter what age group you're feeding.)

With any large crowd, it's essential to plan how much you'll need and how you're going to carry it. "Especially with kids, you can become like Hannibal crossing the Alps," Burns says. A long stretch of bamboo with bags and baskets looped over can help your posse haul far more than its share. And a lightweight cot can be used as a serving table.

For post-picnic diversions for little ones, tote toys, magnifying glasses and kites. Adults may want to indulge in old-fashioned activities, such as races where you balance a peanut on a spoon, or a blindfolded pie-eating contest -- games that Burns admits "are so retro and stupid, but really fun." And fun, after all, is the point of any picnic.

J.J. McCoy

Pack It In

Picnic packing seems simple enough, but don't forget these essentials:

{hbox} A basket, collapsible lunch bin or backpack

{hbox} A cooler or an insulated bag

{hbox} A blanket, Japanese mat or water-resistant tarp for sitting on the ground; or camping or hiking chairs for less-flexible goers

{hbox} Plates, utensils and cups

{hbox} Can opener, corkscrew, paring knife and cutting board

{hbox} Plastic or washable tablecloth

{hbox} Paper towels, washable napkins or wet-naps

{hbox} Bug repellant and first-aid kit

{hbox} Garbage bags for clean-up

Whether you're snacking solo or feeding 40, these successful picnic tips will have you lounging -- and loafing -- in no time.