If you’ve got some wicked face paint, beer, and a bunch of loud, sweaty dudes (and dudettes!), you’ve got massive tailgate party potential—just add a sporting event and a parking lot. But you’re still likely to get stuck with 10 bags of pretzels, no bottle opener, and a cooler full of warm beer if you don’t plan properly. Follow our tips and you’ll be enjoying your party while the frat boys next door are busy trying to bum some fuel for their grill.
When do the gates open, and when do you want to be in your seat watching the event? Don’t try to make a slow-cooked pork shoulder if you only have a few hours before the game (unless you’re actually bringing it already made in your slow cooker). If you have a two-hour window of time, choose fast-grilling items like sausages, shish kebabs, or flank steak. Remember that you’ll also need to factor in time to heat up the grill, especially if you’re using charcoal.
It’s easy to eat standing up and leaves one hand free for fist-pumping. Plus you’ll have less trash if you’re only using napkins. Hot dogs, chips and dips, cut-up vegetables, quesadillas—anything that doesn’t have to go on a plate is fair game.
Related Reading: 10 Stylish Coolers for Summer & Beyond
Essentials that are often overlooked are plenty of napkins, extra fuel, lighters, bottle openers, sanitizing wipes for whoever is handling the meat, extra bags of ice, trash/recycling bags, extra clean bags for leftovers, and extra water for hand-washing. Don’t forget basic grilling tools, too: tongs, foil for keeping things warm (plus it doubles as a grill brush in a pinch if you wad it up and rub it on the grill with your tongs), and a spatula. If you’re packing sauces, bring a silicone brush to layer them on.
That means more time to apply that face paint. Marinate kebabs, cut up vegetables for dippin’, make your dips and sauces, form your burger patties, and soak your wooden skewers (so they don’t catch fire on the grill). If you’re serving cocktails, mix up batches in advance so you’ll just have to add ice and/or club soda on-site.
You don’t want to end up with watery wings and contaminated side dishes. Use resealable plastic bags for marinating meats, as well as for fruit, vegetables, frozen things, sausages, and hot dogs. Use resealable containers for anything crushable—dips, sauces, and salads. If your containers don’t seal tightly, wrap plastic wrap around them. Pack the food cooler right: Raw meat goes on the bottom, vegetables on top. Given that, try to pack things in the reverse order that you will be using them—i.e., snacks on top, side dishes below that—so you don’t have to dig around.
If you can’t grill at your site, or just don’t want to deal with the mess, make hot food ahead of time—think slow cooker pulled pork or beer-braised brats—and keep it toasty by hacking a cooler. You’ll just need to make sure you have enough bricks to fit in a single layer in the bottom, usually between three to six, depending on the size of your cooler and of the bricks. About half an hour before you’re ready to head out, wrap the bricks in heavy-duty aluminum foil and bake them at 300 degrees for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, line your cooler with a layer of paper bags from the grocery store, or a bath or beach towel, then add a layer of foil over that and up the sides of the cooler. When the bricks are ready, place them in the bottom and put your hot food (in heat-safe containers!) on top of them. Fold the foil along the sides of your cooler over the top of the food and add another towel for further insulation, then pop the lid on and voila! You’ll have a way to keep your food warm for at least a few hours.
That’d be a beer opener, of course. But if you do leave it at home, here’s how to open a beer with (a) a pen; (b) a piece of paper; (c) your forearm; (d) a carabiner; or (e) another beer. And if you’re bringing a keg, here’s how to tap it.
Check out our full gallery of tailgating recipes with all the fuel you need for a good parking lot party, and see some highlights below—plus a few team-specific treats for when you want to proclaim your allegiance through what you eat.
Grating ginger means no muddling, and making a big batch of the base ahead of time means you can serve a dozen drinks in the blink of an eye, since all you have to do on-site is pour into cups and top them off with club soda. Get our Ginger Mojitos for a Crowd recipe.
Garbage bread is good stuff; the name just refers to its ability to take whatever leftovers you have laying around and revamp them into warm, doughy pinwheels perfect for snacking. In this case, we use fresh kielbasa sausage, cheddar cheese, and sauerkraut in homage to Pittsburgh, but you definitely don’t have to be rooting for the Steelers to love these. Get our Kielbasa-Cheddar-Sauerkraut Garbage Bread recipe.
These Polish pastries are big in Texas. To make them extra-appropriate for a game day spread, we suggest filling them with buffalo chicken and dipping them in blue cheese. They’ll make you cheer even if you’re booing the Dallas Cowboys in between bites. Get our Buffalo Chicken Kolaches with Blue Cheese Dip recipe.
Whether you’re a Patriots fan or just an avowed chowder lover, these creamy bacon-studded appetizers are like crab rangoon if it hailed from New England—and store-bought wonton wrappers make it easy to put together. Get our New England Clam Chowder Bites recipe.
With all the flavors of your favorite buffalo wings in easy skewer form, these chicken thigh kebabs can be marinated and assembled ahead, and the easy honey-Sriracha glaze brought along in a separate container. Get this Grilled Honey Sriracha Chicken Skewers with Blue Cheese recipe.
If you want the actual wings, they do well on the grill too, but try a sweet and tangy maple-mustard sauce for a change. And bring plenty of wet naps. Get our Grilled Maple-Mustard Chicken Wings recipe.
Grilling the chipotle-rubbed skirt steak and grilling the quesadillas themselves means there’s plenty of smoky flavor in these easy handheld snacks. Get our Grilled Steak Quesadillas recipe.
Cooking shrimp and sausage on a stick is a neat trick, and the charred lemon is great squeezed over everything. Get our Grilled Shrimp-Boil Skewers recipe.
Sometimes the classics are just what you’re craving. In that case, try our tested-and-perfected cheeseburgers. Bring all the prepped-ahead fixings—like washed and dried lettuce, sliced onions, and the sliced cheese—in a disposable aluminum or reusable plastic container so assembling these is a snap. Get our Perfect Cheeseburger recipe.
Because it is nice to have a little something fresh and healthy in among the meats and the beer and the chips and dips. This easy orzo salad is great at room temp and packed with flavor and texture from plenty of mix-ins—and versatile enough to pair well with almost anything. Get our Celery and Olive Orzo Salad recipe.