18 Tips You Need For Throwing A Tailgate That's Better Than The Game

Fall is for good drinks, better friends, and football. It's not just the magic of watching your favorite team win the game but also the pre-game festivities that make sitting on bleachers in the freezing cold for hours worth it. And no pre-game ritual is complete without a proper tailgate. 

Although celebrations with music, food, and festivities before an important event or celebration date back to ancient Rome and Greece, the American tailgate was popularized with the rise of consumer goods like automobiles and outdoor grills in the early 20th century. The first actual tailgate was traced back to the Harvard-Yale football game in 1906, where nearly 32,000 individuals newly equipped with cars gathered to eat picnic fare and prepare for the game together. Tailgating also took pressure off the restaurants in college towns to serve the floods of people coming in for the game and even encouraged colleges to build larger stadiums that had enough space for partygoers. 

In short, your tailgate is what you make of it. While some people offer tables of delicious spreads, others stick to a small portable grill and a couple of yard chairs. Regardless of your ideal tailgate size, we've collected some of the best tips to ensure it's a smashing success. 

Get a head count in advance

Formal dinner parties typically involve some sort of formal invitation process to get people to attend your event. Conversely, tailgates often involve people just showing up, which potentially means bringing more people than you initially bargained for. This may leave you stretching your food out amongst your guests — or leaving empty trays and hungry bellies before the big game. 

To plan effectively, you'll need to get an approximate headcount. This system will look different for different people. For example, a text message thread will suffice if you're hosting a small pre-game party with ten people. But if you're planning on upwards of 50 people, you might use an online survey form to ensure you account for all of your guests (and their friends). 

The general rule of thumb for serving is that each adult will eat a pound of food, while each child will eat a half-pound of food, excluding drinks and desserts. It might look like a six to eight-ounce serving of protein per person, with the rest being carbs, dips, and salads. We recommend accounting for a few extra people in your headcount, just in case. 

Read up on your venue before you start packing

You should always read the fine print when you sign an important document. The same should also be said about tailgating. Each venue has different rules for what you can and can't bring to a tailgate, so reading the rules is very important before you pack up your vehicle.

The exact rules can dictate important facets of your tailgate, including whether you can bring alcohol, glass containers, kegs, grills, and dogs (real ones, not hot dogs). Some venues will also be particular about where you can and can't put your grill and if you must have a fire extinguisher on hand. When you register for a tailgate spot at your venue, you will likely have to sign off that you understand these rules and will adhere to the rules when your tailgate entourage arrives. And if no regulations are posted, try to play it safe with plastic containers and pre-cooked food, or call your tailgate office before you pull into the lot. 

Make a schedule with important times

The best thing you can do before your tailgate is to plan, plan, plan. It will ensure you won't be strapped for time to prepare your food, get your car packed, and set up at your chosen tailgating venue. You should plan to arrive about three to four hours before the game officially starts so you'll have time to set up, eat, and clean up before kickoff. 

From there, you can work backward based on how long it takes to pack the vehicle and drive to the venue. When it comes to food, try to make as much food as possible ahead of time to limit your stress on the morning of the event. You can also pack the car with your non-food items, such as your chairs, decorations, and coolers, and save your time for making and packing hot and cold food. Include small things on your list, including par-cooking meat, making dips, and decorating desserts, to ensure everything will come together in time for your event. 

Avoid foods that need to be served piping hot

One of the biggest mistakes people make when picking food for a tailgate is choosing foods that don't do well with small temperature changes. For example, we love the sour and crunchy flavor of fried pickles piping hot from the oil, but not as much as when the pickles have sat on an oily paper towel for 20 minutes. The same can be said about mozzarella sticks, which are really only good when they have the perfect string pull and are freshly warm out of the oven. Stick to savory options that you can eat slightly below or above the intended eating temperature.

The same should be said about food that is frozen. Ice cream is challenging to keep frozen on a hot tailgate day, so we recommend sticking to other desserts that can handle temperature extremes, such as cupcakes or brownies. 

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold

Food safety doesn't take a break on game day. As a tailgate host, you must ensure your hot foods stay hot (above 140 degrees Fahrenheit) and your cold food stays cold (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) to prevent bacteria from lurking in the temperature danger zone. Failing to regulate this temperature can mean that you (and your guests) may get sick — and that's a game-day outcome that no one wants. 

Consider using a disposable chafing dish to ensure you keep your hot foods warm. A set typically includes two aluminum pans, a wire rack, and an external heat source. Fill the larger pan with the recommended amount of water, light the heat source, and set the pans on the rack. We prefer these for tailgates over plug-ins because you won't have to worry about electrical outlets. 

The best way to preserve cold food is to use an ice bath. Drain the extra water as it melts and replace it with new ice as needed. You should also consider smaller portions on the ice to keep the food colder for longer. 

Pack the cooler strategically

Your cooler has a lot of space to play with until you pack it with ice, booze, and food. To ensure all of your items fit in the cooler, it's essential to pack everything methodically. Start by laying your pre-chilled alcohol and canned beverages on the bottom of the cooler to ensure they cooled adequately. From there, add a layer of ice on top and between the beverages to seal them in. Then, pack your sealed food in plastic bags or airtight containers on top of the ice. Pack your cooler as tight as possible to prevent any air from coming in, and lock all the latches to seal in the cold air.

To avoid cross-contamination with raw food, you should also consider packing a separate cooler with just ice for putting in beverages. To keep the ice in your cooler from melting too fast, try lining the insides and lid with aluminum foil to reflect the sun's rays. 

Plan for leftovers

Leftovers (and managing them) are an important part of cooking for a crowd. If only half of the people you estimated would attend your tailgate present, you might have to eat leftover chicken wings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next few days. Instead, pack leftovers smarter by picking up a package of plastic meal-prep containers and bringing it with you for your tailgate. Some tailgate foods are even better when reheated the next day, like chili and baked beans. 

If you want to make it easy for your guests to eat their leftovers, be sure to stock up on containers that can be microwaved and popped in the dishwasher. You'll also want to ensure you can keep these leftovers chilled adequately for the length of time between the end of the tailgate and when everyone leaves the game.

Load up on serving tools ahead of time

One big mistake that people make in planning for a tailgate is not accounting for the small items, like plastic cutlery, plates, napkins, and cups. To prevent forgetting any of these integral items, try shopping ahead of time and in bulk. We recommend getting large, disposable, and durable plastic plates for your food. After all, nothing is worse than having a flimsy plate that always feels too heavy to put food on. Our favorite disposable plates include the Dixie Ultra Disposable dinner-sized plates, which can hold up to two pounds of food without breaking. 

Consider purchasing biodegradable cutlery if you're trying to make your party more eco-friendly. These materials are often made from bamboo or recycled plant-based materials, making them sturdy yet sustainable. 

Keep your condiments in a caddy

There's no such thing as a tailgate without the condiments. Your condiment selection will depend on what you're serving at the tailgate. If you're going with the traditional tailgate fare like burgers and hot dogs, you should have the holy trinity of condiments: ketchup, mustard, and relish. 

To keep your condiments organized, we recommend buying a condiment caddy or repurposing a shower caddy to organize your ketchup and mustard. Make a small, separate station away from the food for your tailgate attendees to garnish their food. We also recommend lining the condiment station with a layer of parchment or wax paper for easy cleanup. If you're only feeding a small group, you can get away with individual condiment packs repurposed from the drawer in your kitchen. 

Accommodate a range of dietary preferences

Not everyone who comes to a tailgate is a hot dogs-and-burgers person. You'll often get some food allergies or dietary restrictions mixed into your crowd, so it's important to have at least one option for every type of eater. If you're looking for plant-based options to serve, consider adding a few plant-based burgers to your menu or bulking things up with a black bean or a quinoa salad. If you're aiming for some gluten-free options, explore some interesting dips supplemented with gluten-free tortilla chips. You can also shop for gluten-free buns for your burgers and hot dogs or choose gluten-free pasta in your macaroni salad. 

Although offering an option to suit every diet might seem overwhelming, your guests will appreciate it. They'll also enjoy having foods clearly labeled with potential allergens, like milk and eggs. It will also prevent you from being bombarded with a ton of questions when you're trying to serve and set up your tailgate space. 

Consider a cocktail bar

Cocktails are an easy way to make your game day better. And there's no better way to involve your guests in the tailgate experience than having them make their own drinks at your mini cocktail bar. You might even get creative and pre-make cocktails in jars for your guests to sip on during the tailgate.

If you're starting with an early morning tailgate, serve up some mimosas. Supply the bubbly and pick a few different juices; peach, orange, and mango are some of our favorites. Then, add some fruit and herb garnish to complete your perfect mimosa spread. These beverages are easy to customize and a perfect pick-me-up in the morning. Another one of our favorite beverages to serve on a cocktail cart are Bloody Marys. You'll just need to supply the booze and the tomato juice and then let your tailgate comrades garnish their beverages with cucumber, celery, bacon, and shrimp. 

Choose low-commitment options for small plates

One of the important differences that sets a tailgate apart from another dinner party is that rarely any of the food is eaten sitting down — and almost none of it is shared around a table. Now is not the time to prepare an elaborate prime rib or dauphinoise potatoes. Instead, stick with low-commitment finger food that people can snack on throughout the tailgate. Planning for people to snack rather than eat an entire meal also allows you to extend the variety of your offerings instead of just sticking with a main course. 

Some of our favorite low-commitment tailgate fare includes dips, wings, and charcuterie platters. The best dips to serve at a tailgate party include a creamy buffalo chicken dip that is almost better than eating the wings or a simple guacamole that could be amped up with seasoned chips. 

Don't neglect the tailgate classics

Some foods have never left the tailgate lexicon — and for good reason. One of the most popular staples that everyone should have at their tailgate is pigs in a blanket. These cocktail weiners are wrapped with crescent dough for an easy appetizer that can be customized with herb butter and served with dips ranging from ketchup to garlic aioli. Another popular appetizer is deviled eggs. You can boil and cool the hard-boiled eggs ahead of time and add extra spice and seasoning to the filling to tune it to your liking. 

Buffalo wings are one of our favorite snacks to make for the big game. You can make these wings in the oven to save time but not skimp on the flavor. 

Prepare as much food as possible the night before

Preparing as much food ahead of time is integral to ensuring your tailgate spread is game-day ready. You can marinate your poultry anywhere between two and three hours; any longer will cause the meat to turn to mush. Keep the meat in the refrigerator in an airtight container or bag with the marinade; avoid keeping it out at room temperature for extended periods of time. 

You can also chop up your veggies for your crudités plate or dip station. Bell peppers, celery, and carrots can all be chopped two to three days before you need to use them. Chips and crackers are one group of foods that shouldn't be brought out of the bag until you're ready to serve them, as it may cause them to go stale. 

Turn your grill on as soon as you arrive

Once you've arrived at the venue, you will need to start setting up your spread. But the first thing you should turn on is your grill. It takes a while for your charcoal briquettes to heat up sufficiently, and you'll want to have the food ready to go before the football fans start getting hungry. To ensure your grill is in good working order, you'll want to clean it before you arrive in the lot. 

There are many things you can do to ensure your grilling experience is flawless. Although it might seem unconventional, one of the best tricks for cleaning your grill is using a sliced, raw potato to remove pesky food residue between deep cleanings. Swiping a layer of the starchy tuber on your grates will also create a non-stick surface and prevent food from sticking. You can also cook your food on aluminum foil to avoid getting your grill covered in sauce — and having to clean it when you'd rather be watching the game. 

Set up your space for entertaining

If you're hosting a tailgate, you have to make your space look the part. This involves decorating — and going on a shopping spree to get all of your tailgating essentials. One of the most important items you'll need to add to your shopping list is a tent and rain gear just in case the weather changes out of the blue. You should also shop for a fire extinguisher if you plan on grilling and enough charcoal or propane to do so effectively.

Once you have your essentials, you can explore your options for aesthetic pieces to show what team you're loyal to. Shop online for football-themed table spreads, including napkins, tablecloths, and plates. You should also plan to make your tailgate more than just a gathering of people around a bowl of guacamole. Add yard games, like Spikeball and corn hole to keep your guests engaged and having fun while you're cooking and entertaining.

Prepare football-shaped foods

Football-themed foods — because you are at a football game, right? The options for these foods vary and include everything sweet and savory. One of the most popular examples includes brownies or Rice Krispies treats sliced into the shape of footballs and decorated with a frosting line garnish. If you consider yourself a sugar-cookie decorating pro, you can also try making cookies with jersey numbers and football-themed memorabilia. You can also shape a cheeseball into a football shape and accent the lines with cheese and nuts. 

Another idea we love is making your appetizers into the shape of a football stadium. Make a rectangular tray with lettuce-topped, seven-layer dip accented with cream cheese down lines. Then, you can build the sides of the stadium with compartments of crackers, dips, and cheeses. Pop in a few Slim Jim goalposts, and you'll have a dip spread that no tailgater can resist.

Don't neglect the desserts

While many people go straight for the dips and the wings on game day, we always pass the 50-yard line for the desserts. From brownies to cookies, there's no wrong way to do dessert at your tailgate. Like other food options, we recommend serving smaller portions and appetizer-like foods that can be eaten near the television or taken with you to the game. For example, although you can do a lot with a sheet cake, it can get messy, and you have to bring all the utensils needed to slice and serve it to your guests.

Instead, stick to finger food like cookies and brownies. You can kick your football party up a notch with some of our favorite recipes, like decadently swirled cream cheese brownies, which can be made with homemade brownie batter or store-bought brownie mix. Add a football decal on the top of each brownie or cut them with a cookie cutter into football shapes for a perfect tailgate dessert.