Tips for the Perfect Tailgate Party
Take your tailgate from average to awesome by making it healthy, safe, and fun.
There’s only one thing that can make America’s most popular sport even better: the perfect tailgate party. A great American tradition itself, tailgating celebrates football and food throughout the fall. Although best known for beer and burgers, tailgates can be healthy—and safe—and still score major points with fellow football fans. A little planning and know-how is all you need.
Tackle a Healthy Menu
As tailgate host, you should plan to provide the main dish, a couple of side dishes, and some snacks. The options for the main fare are endless—chili, burgers, and barbecue chicken are just a few—and easy to make healthier. For example, if you love burgers, use 93 percent or higher lean ground beef or turkey. If you want to make chili, load up the pot with beans and use that extra-lean ground beef or turkey. If chicken is on the menu, try make-ahead pulled chicken sliders with homemade barbecue sauce that is high on flavor and lower on fat and sugar (see recipe).
For sides, coleslaw is a great addition to grilled fare and can be made with light mayonnaise and powerhouse veggies such as broccoli stalks and red cabbage (see recipe). And you can never go wrong with a fresh fruit salad.
For guilt-free snacking, add a veggie tray with hummus or low-fat ranch dressing to your menu. Other easy snacks include unsalted trail mix, unbuttered popcorn, and baked tortilla chips.
And don’t forget about drinks and lots of ice. Seltzer water and iced tea are refreshing alternatives to beer.
Don’t Fumble on Essential Supplies
Supplies to keep your space clean and your guests comfortable are key to a winning tailgate. Inventory and organize your tailgate supplies before game day. Be sure to have these items:
- Lots of trash bags to keep your area clean
- Napkins, plates, cups, and utensils for dining
- An extra set of plates and cooking utensils so that you can use one set for raw food and the other for cooked food
- Charcoal, food thermometer, and other grill supplies for cooking
- Moist towelettes for keeping your hands and cooking space clean (if you won’t have easy access to a sink)
- Hand sanitizer for the portable toilets
- Sunscreen and bug spray to keep sunburn and bug bites at bay
- Games to entertain guests and keep everyone active (see sidebar)
- Insulated coolers and ice or ice packs to keep the temperature lower than 40 degrees (put a refrigerator thermometer inside to make sure)
Make Food Safety Your MVP
Don’t neglect food safety when planning and carrying out your tailgate. Follow these tips to keep the score for foodborne illness at zero.
Defrost any frozen meat you plan to prepare in the refrigerator or cold water bath at home, not at the tailgate. Once thawed, put raw meat, poultry, or seafood in containers or sealed plastic bags to keep their juices from getting on other foods. Pack meat products in one cooler and other food in another cooler.
You may be tempted to cook your meat partway beforehand to save time at the tailgate. But partial cooking of food can let harmful bacteria survive and multiply. If you don’t want to cook at your tailgate, cook your food fully beforehand. Then divide cooked food into shallow containers and store them in the refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to serve them.
Cooking for a Crowd
Cook meat and poultry to safe temperatures. You can’t tell if meat is safely cooked by looking at it. In fact, food cooked on a grill tends to brown fast on the outside, which can be deceiving. So be sure to check the temperature with a food thermometer.
How Hot Is Hot Enough?
Make sure your meat reaches the following temperatures.
Place meat thermometer in the thickest part of the food making sure not to touch bone, fat, or gristle.
Poultry 165 degrees
Ground meat 160 degrees
Beef, pork, lamb, and veal steak, roasts, and chops 145 degrees
(Let rest for at least three minutes after cooking, but before eating.)
Leftovers (reheating) 165 degrees
Keeping It the Right Temp
Once hot food is cooked, you can make sure it stays at 140 degrees or higher by using a chafing dish, warming tray, slow cooker, or insulated container. If you don’t have these items, put out only a small portion of hot food at a time, keeping the rest hot on the grill.
It’s also important to keep cold food cold. You can do this by placing dishes in bowls of ice or by putting out smaller portions of cold food while keeping the rest in a refrigerator or cooler. But keep in mind that leftovers should be refrigerated or tossed after about two hours. This time is reduced to one hour when the outside temperature is 90 degrees or greater.
Focus on Friends, Fun, Activity
The food at your tailgate is certain to please. But the fun you provide is what will bring people back every week. After you eat, champion games like Frisbee or football, grab some friends to walk around the parking lot, or organize a scavenger hunt.
Then don’t let the activity stop once the game starts. During football season, you can easily rack up an extra 66 hours sitting on bleachers, lawn chairs, and recliners by watching just one game per week. You can easily squeeze in 30 minutes of activity between halftime and play breaks alone. Here’s how:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator when finding your seats or after using the restroom.
- Stand up and stretch during short breaks.
- Race a friend up the bleachers during halftime.
Also, don’t try to find the best spot in the lot for your tailgate. Park your car away from the stadium. You and your guests will get a walk to and from your car and have an easy exit after the game.