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How to Prep and Pack for a Winning Tailgate

You might never throw the game-winning Hail Mary, but armed with some forethought, a few good recipes, and some tips on how to pack for tailgating, you can plan a tailgating party equally deserving of a touchdown dance. Keep the drinks cool, the grill hot, and the beer flowing with our top tips on how to pack for the best part of game day.

Tailgate Cooler

Photo by Meredith

Why Packing Properly For Your Tailgate Matters

  • Food safety matters. It's important to keep foods at safe temperatures when you're away from your home fridge or freezer. Hot foods should be kept hot, and cold foods should be kept as cold as possible—and not just because they taste better that way.
  • It's easier to be organized on game day. No one wants to be chopping onions for salsa on the day of the game—and you definitely don't want to be making salsa at the game itself. When you get organized ahead of time, you can enjoy the party more while it's actually happening!

Have a Game Plan

A coach wouldn't head to the game without his little book of winning plays and you shouldn't either. Lists are a tailgater's best friend—and the easiest way to make sure you don't show up at the stadium without the burger patties or the bottle opener. Map out what will go in each cooler and every bag, then check them off only as you put them in. (Scroll down for a checklist that'll get you started.)

Put Safety First

The best way to pack a cooler is actually to pack three: one for drinks, one for cold food, and one for hot food. But if you plan to cook on site or are limited for cold space, you can eliminate the hot "cooler" and just put everything in one or two coolers. Just remember: While most drinks will be fine if they enter what's known as the "danger zone," foods are not. Hot food needs to stay above 140˚F and refrigerated foods need to be kept below 40˚F—anything in between can allow harmful bacteria to grow.

Keep food safety in mind as you pack, too: if possible put well-wrapped raw meats at the bottom of your cooler and any ready-to-eat foods (like cheese) on top. Get more smart tips for how to pack a cooler.

Get Fired Up to Keep Hot Foods Hot

Spicy Slow-Cooked Chili

The easiest hot food to bring for game day is chili, since you can just keep it right in the slow-cooker you made it in. Allrecipes home cook jc30312 says, "I made this chili for a Super Bowl party, and it was a big hit. It's solid and basic enough to appeal to a large group and to allow for add-ons as the cook chooses."

 

If you have other foods you want to keep warm, you can either buy a catering hot box (it's similar to a cooler, but made for hot foods) or build your own makeshift one. Simply keep a few bricks in a hot oven as you're cooking, then rinse the inside of the cooler with extremely hot water, lay down a towel, top the towel with the bricks, and add the hot food. Fill up the rest of the cooler with either more towels or newspaper—or use sweatshirts you may want later in the evening when temperatures cool down—as long as you don't mind smelling like food!

Don't Skimp on Snacks

Loaded Baked Potato Dip

It always takes longer than you think to get the party set up, so have a plan to get a few snacks and drinks on the table right away. Bring chips and a make-ahead dip to put out—and you can even decorate the top of the dip to cheer on your favorite team! Get more recipes and ideas for tailgate appetizers and snacks.

 

Bring the Best Burgers

Juiciest Hamburgers Ever

Hamburgers are classic tailgate food, and if you have a grill, they're usually a top pick. But you don't want to spend the whole party digging out the ketchup, keeping an eye on the burgers, and tracking down the cheese. So here are a few quick tips to make hamburgers a cinch to prep and pack:

  • Keep all the condiments in an empty six-pack box.
  • Use a disposable foil tray for the cheese. Lay out overlapping slices of cheese so they're easy for tailgaters to grab, then fill the rest of the tray with sliced onions, tomatoes, and lettuce.
  • Make your patties the night before, and stack them with a square of wax paper in between each patty so they're easy to grab and grill.

Get more top-rated burger recipes, including vegetarian burgers.

 

Make Big Batch Beertails

Beer Margaritas

Come prepared to pour the cocktails—ones you've made ahead—to make yours the best bar in the parking lot. Use a funnel to pour the mix into a rinsed-out soda bottle, then simply combine with beer at the game. Just make sure you use a few frozen water bottles to keep your coolers cold—they'll melt into much-needed hydration right as you reach the bottom of your beertails.  Get more recipes for beer cocktails.

Tailgate Checklist

Here's everything you need (besides the food) for a great tailgate:

  • Tent
  • Tables
  • Chairs
  • Hot Cooler
  • Cold Cooler
  • Coozies
  • Ice
  • Napkins
  • Cups
  • Plates
  • Utensils
  • Water bottles
  • Paper towels
  • Wet wipes
  • Grill
  • Charcoal/Propane
  • Lighter
  • Meat thermometor
  • Grill tools (brush, spatula, tongs)
  • Foil
  • Serving utensils
  • Oven/grill mitts
  • Knife
  • Cutting board
  • Can/bottle opener
  • Bowls or aluminum pans for serving
  • Plastic bags/containers for leftovers
  • Bug spray and sunscreen
  • First aid kit
  • Trash/recycling bags

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Naomi Tomky

About Naomi Tomky

Naomi Tomky writes about food and travel. Her award-winning work has been published by Saveur, AFAR, Vogue, Food & Wine, and Fodor’sShe is a contributing editor for Seattle’s Child and teaches an introductory class on travel writing.