How To Plan The Perfect Tailgate Party

For many people tailgating before the big game is a tradition or even a rite of passage. For others, it’s the perfect chance to meet up with old friends, and even make some new ones as you all share the fan experience with some tasty food to boot. At the very least, it’s a way to minimize the impact of expensive concession costs.

Of course, grilled food and barbecue go hand in hand with a great tailgating party. At the same time, and experienced tailgater will tell you that a successful event doesn’t just happen on accident. If you are new to tailgating, and you don’t have some semblance of a plan, chances are you might end up with an empty stomach when it comes time to walk into the stadium.

In this article, we’ll explore the basic factors that go into planning the perfect tailgating party. Whether you are new to tailgating or you are looking to taking your parking lot cooking game to the next level, you need to understand the following factors.

Know Your Venue

Twenty or thirty years ago stadium parking lots had very few rules. As long as you didn’t bask in bad behavior or start something on fire, officials tended to look the other way.

Today, many stadiums have enacted rules governing tailgating activities, or provide a designated area specifically for tailgating. In some of these cases, you need to reserve a spot, or perhaps put down a deposit.

While you are looking up that information online you should also double-check the rules governing that area. Some venues will only allow you to bring a portable gas grill, or they have rules associated with how and where you can use a portable charcoal grill.

It’s also worth noting that some venues offer electric power posts for a small fee. This could be just what you need if you have an electric grill, or you want to bring a crockpot or a griddle with you to prepare other elements of the meal.

During your research process, you should also check the maps. Stadiums with a designated tailgating area don’t always put it close to entry gates. If your seats are on the other side of the stadium from where you will be cooking and parking, you might want to give yourself a little bit of extra time.

Choose The Right Grill

On game day, your grill plays a critical role. A gas grill on a windy day can be frustrating if you don’t have some sort of block against the elements. A charcoal grill can be a safety issue if the fire is still burning when it’s time to head into the stadium.

If you are new to tailgating and you are shopping for the right grill, make sure you are following the rules laid down by the stadium or parking lot. Also, take the time to think about how you can protect it, or in the case of a charcoal grill how you can put it out.

Key factors to consider when choosing a grill for your tailgate party

  • Weight
  • Portability and handles
  • Safety features and convenience
  • How to transport it from home to the stadium and back
  • Bringing enough charcoal or gas for the cooking session
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Plan Invitations And A Menu

There are some people who will go so far as to send out decorated invitations with RSVP requirements. At the same time, there are others who are happy to send out a text message a few days before the game, to figure out who’s going and who is bringing what?

Knowing how many people you have and what you want to cook will help you come up with a convenient menu. You shouldn’t just assume that only the people with tickets will be joining you.

There are tailgaters who will show up at the stadium parking lot to hang out, eat good food and bond with fellow fans. Then when the game is about to start, they’ll tuck into one of the nearby sports bars to watch the game on the big screen.

If it’s just going to be you and your friend, or maybe your kids, you might be able to get by with some hot dogs on a portable gas grill, and a bag of chips. However, there are some people who see the tailgating party as an event on par with going to the game, and they will go all out! This is even more likely to be the case at venues where you have to reserve a spot or pay a fee to rent out a tailgating spot.

To Pot Luck Or Not To Pot Luck?

If you are going to have a fairly large group, the cost of food can be expensive. Some people will choose to have a potluck. You bring the grill and meat, someone else brings the chips and side dishes.

There are also some groups who prefer to have one person bring everything and then everyone chips in a couple of bucks. That way one person is in charge of everything and it all gets there at the same time. If one car gets stuck in traffic, the rest of the group isn’t stuck sitting around waiting for the buns or beans to get there.

For some groups, a tailgating party is an opportunity to meet new friends and bond together as fans. Of course, nothing draws people in better than the smell of grilled food and the offer of a free bite. In a scenario like this, you might want to bring a high volume of inexpensive items to share.

Make A Checklist

Planning a successful tailgate menu is a little bit of a thought experiment. Sit down and take a moment to imagine how the day will go. Make a checklist of what you will need. If you are having brats or burgers, make sure to include buns and condiments on the list.

Don’t forget to include the tools. Even if you have tough calloused fingers, a pair of tongs is still preferable to flipping meat by hand. Do you need a knife to cut those pork chops? If you’re making chicken breasts, make sure to bring a probe thermometer.

Setup A Basic Schedule

Time is a precious commodity in life, and it can be in short supply on game day. There are bound to be delays on the way between your back door and your seat in the stadium. Take a moment to sit down and think about some of the things that could slow things down. This includes:

  • Traffic delays getting to the venue
  • Waiting in line to pay for parking or tailgate spots
  • Setting up your grill station and food prep area
  • Preheating the grill
  • Cooking the food
  • Putting out the grill and cleaning up
  • Walking to the gate
  • Getting through the gate and finding your seat

Prepare For The Weather

Depending on what you want to prepare weather can be a major factor in cook times. Direct heat foods like brats, burgers and pork chops might not be impacted by cold weather. Yet if you want to hybrid grill something, like bone-in chicken breasts, chicken wings, or you want to barbecue, the heat of the grill might have to compete with cold weather outdoors.

If you know a storm is on the way, or bitter cold is in the forecast, you might want to take extra measures. Perhaps a popup pavilion tent can protect the grill from rain and snow? Putting a smoker at the edge of a truck topper could help protect a gas grill from being blown out by the wind.

Also, think about yourself. Hands, in particular, lose dexterity in the cold. If you have to do a lot of fiddly knife work or you need shears to cut the joints on a batch of chicken wings, you might want to include hand warmers on your checklist.

Safety Tips

Safety goes beyond just simple security and basic fire safety while you are cooking. Many venues have their own set of safety rules that you need to account for when you are planning. At the same, food safety is also a factor.

Fire Safety

Any time you are using a grill in an unfamiliar area, fire is going to be a safety concern. In fact, some venues require you to have a fire extinguisher with you in order to tailgate at their facility.

If you are bringing a charcoal grill, you need to have a plan for how to put it out. If you are going to suffocate the fire by closing all the vents and dampers, you need to plan an extra 20 or even 30 minutes in your schedule. If you are going to put it out with water or a fire extinguisher, you have to plan to have it with you.

The last thing you want to do is put a questionably hot grill in the trunk of your car or the back of your truck and then wander off toward the stadium, hoping for the best.

Food Safety

Food safety is an important factor. Every year people who ignore food safety and recommended cooking temperatures suffer the consequences of food poisoning or other food-borne illness.

Think about the “Danger Zone” of keeping thawed foods at unsafe temperatures. If you are cooking ground beef or chicken, you want to make sure that it reaches a safe internal temperature.

Keep some latex gloves on hand to help you safely handle and pass out food. Some basic hand sanitizer will also help you clean hands when necessary.

Easy Cleanup Tips

Clean up is also a factor that you don’t want to ignore. Some venues with a designated tailgating area provide a dedicated dumpster or trash cans. When you are driving in, keep an eye out for them. If your tailgating area isn’t near a trash can, you might need to use a five-gallon bucket to quickly move refuse from point A to point B.

Napkins also need to be on your game day checklist. Depending on what you’re cooking, you will likely go through far more napkins than you think. When in doubt a couple of rolls of paper towels will go a long way toward keeping your hands clean and might even spare some stained clothes.

Hand sanitizer is also a must for your checklist. If you have to handle raw meat with your bare hands you want to be able to kill any lingering germs before it’s time to eat. Grilling tools and cutting boards are also prime targets for bacterial cross-contamination. Hand sanitizer that’s lightly soaked onto a napkin can help kill germs as you move from one phase of cooking to the next.

Water is also important. Sometimes you need to rinse your hands or rinse off a serving plate or cooking tools. While you might be able to get by with bottled water, a jug or aquatainer can help you rinse and wash things up without having to worry about running out of something to drink.

Of course, another safety concern to factor in is a designated driver. Many tailgaters enjoy an adult beverage or two before the game or have a few while they’re in the stadium. If you do plan to imbibe, make sure you have a designated driver planned to make sure you get home safely.

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