What Do You Serve At A Tailgate Party?

In Backyard Party Ideas, Grilling Basics by marketninjas

Before we get into exactly what you serve we thought it would be helpful to understand a little bit about where tailgating comes from and if you’re the host just how you set a tailgate party up.

What is tailgating at a football game?

Tailgating is basically a pre-game party before an event.  It is most commonly done before a football game and may take place in the parking lot of an arena or stadium.

It got the nickname “tailgating” because people often drove their trucks in order to bring food, drinks, and a barbecue grill.  The festivities revolve around the vehicle itself and food might be spread out on the tailgate or guests could also sit there.

Tailgating gives fans an excuse to get together and socialize before a game.  It also provides a place to hang out after the game is over while waiting for the traffic to subside. There is always food, music, and lawn games like corn-hole or drinking games such as beer pong.

Although tailgating is popular at football games, it can be done at just about any sporting event such as soccer, baseball, or a hockey game.  Non-sporting events that also feature tailgating include concerts, barbecues, festivals, or even weddings.

How do you host a tailgate party?

The first step to hosting a tailgate party is:

Decide on the date and time.

Look up the schedule of your favorite team and make sure to check the forecast for a nice, sunny day.  Give your guests enough advance notice so they can get tickets to the game.

Get information on the venue.

See if it’s necessary to make a reservation.  It’s also important to know the size of the area to determine how many cars you can bring.  Ask about rules concerning alcohol, glass containers, and if you can bring in kegs.

Not everyone will need a car and it’s a good idea to carpool or walk from a nearby parking lot to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

After all the logistics are taken care of, start inviting your friends. 

Agree on a time to meet at someone’s house or  at the venue.

At least one person should have a car or truck large enough to hold everything you’ll need to bring.

A pickup truck is best because the bed can hold a grill, kegs, folding chairs, coolers, and totes full of accessories.  It also provides the tailgate which gives the event its name.

Finally, you’re ready to start:

Plan the menu

You’ll also have to start planning the menu and putting together a grocery list for any ingredients you don’t already have.  Have each person volunteer to bring something so the preparations are spread amongst the group and no one has too much to do.

How do you have a good tailgate party?

The key to a successful tailgate party that people will be talking about for days is to make sure it’s fun for everyone.  Take into consideration who will be attending and make sure to cater to their preferences.

If children will be attending, have some non-alcoholic beverages and age-appropriate games on hand.  For vegetarians, bring along some veggie burgers or dogs to toss on the grill. Don’t forget to play music and games or mingle with other tailgaters to build a sense of camaraderie.

Plan games at your tailgater.

Games like cornhole or ladderball are great for adding to a tailgater!

BBQ Your Favorite Foods

It’s also important to be respectful of everyone’s time by getting there early to set everything up and get the barbecue grill going. The menu should be relatively simple and unless you plan to smoke and slow cook a meal any you plan to  shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to cook.

We also highly recommend simply to set up and fold tables and chairs.  Collapsible tables like this one (on Amazon) are perfect and were made for the occassion!

Prepare for the setup and tear down.

After the party is over, make sure to clean everything up before heading into the stadium to watch the game.  Have plenty of trash bags available and use paper plates, napkins, and plastic silverware to make things even faster.

Cool beverages are a must

Although alcohol often features at tailgating parties, know your limits and don’t drink so much that you are unable to enjoy the game or be responsible for your guests.

Foods to Serve

Now that the basics are out of the way, it’s time to focus on the main event of any tailgating party: the food.

What do you serve at a tailgate party?

There’s an endless variety of tailgating recipes to choose from but it’s better to keep things simple.  No one is expecting an elaborate spread and trying to plan an extensive menu will just stress you out.  Instead, opt for:

  • Three to four different main dishes
  • Have everyone bring some sides, accompaniments, or condiments.

Because you’ll probably be eating standing up or sitting in a lawn chair, foods that are portable and easy to eat should get priority.

Anything that you can make the night before is also a good idea to save time which equals more fun the day of the tailgate.

What is the best food to bring to a party?

Tailgating parties usually involve some kind of barbecue so it makes sense to start there and build your menu around a variety of meats.  Some popular options include:

  • Burgers – everyone loves a burger and you can stick with classic beef and get creative with toppings and condiments
  • Hot dogs – this popular meat is a crowd favorite, easy to prepare, and can be elevated by adding chili
  • Ribs – because they take time, make them in a slow cooker in advance
  • Sausages – get something a little heartier and top it with peppers, onions, and mushrooms or opt for little smokies in the slow cooker
  • Pulled pork – make it in advance in the crock pot and then grab some rolls and coleslaw for a delicious sandwich
  • Wings – marinate them before the event and then toss them on the grill for a smoky snack with some blue cheese for dipping
  • Grilled chicken – marinate your chicken the night before or cube it and put it on skewers with pineapple and veggies
  • Meatballs – slow cook them the night before in some barbecue sauce

After the main event, it’s time to focus on sides.  You’ll want to have a complete menu, not just meats and chips.  Traditional picnic sides are a great place to start:

  • Chips and dip – pick your favorite kinds of chips and then make a few dips; some ideas include:
    • Salsa
    • Guacamole
    • Buffalo chicken dip
    • Spinach artichoke dip
    • Hummus
    • Crackers
    • Pretzels
    • Seven layer dip
    • Jalapeno popper dip
  • Chili – this is ideal because you can make it the night before, reheat at the event, and top it with things like:
    • Avocado
    • Shredded cheese
    • Tortilla chips
    • Tomatoes
    • Hot Sauce
  • Cold salads – picnic sides are always a good idea
    • Macaroni salad
    • Potato salad
    • Fruit salad
    • Charred corn salad
    • Pasta salad
    • Coleslaw
    • Bean salad
  • Baked beans – this side is easy to make in advance and will win anyone over, especially if it’s got plenty of brown sugar and is topped with bacon
  • Macaroni and cheese – comfort foods are always a hit at tailgating parties and this one can also be made earlier in the day and reheated before eating

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What snacks to serve guests?

While you’re getting the grill going and cooking everything up, it’s a good idea to have some ready-made snacks for your guests to munch on while they wait for the main meal.

Make a few things in advance that are easy to transport straight from your fridge and are best served cold so they can be eaten right away.

  • Cheese ball with crackers
  • Chex mix or trail mix
  • Caprese skewers
  • Fruit salad
  • Vegetables with Ranch dipping sauce
  • Bruschetta
  • Ants on a log
  • Deviled eggs
  • Kale chips
  • Pinwheels
  • Watermelon wedges
  • What about drinks?

In addition to a tantalizing spread of food, bring some cold, refreshing drinks to wash it all down with.  For the adults, a variety of beer and other alcoholic drinks are a must.

Since you won’t want to get too intoxicated, get some soda or juice as well.  This is also necessary for guests who don’t drink or young children.  Water, along with plenty of ice, is also important to rehydrate and prevent heat stroke on hot summer days.

If the weather is chilly or the game starts later in the day, warm drinks will be vital so make some coffee, mulled cider, or hot cocoa and keep it warm in a thermos.

  • Don’t forget about dessert

After a big meal, you might not have much room for dessert. You can always eat it after the game while you relax, discuss your favorite moments, and wait for traffic to dissipate.  Make desserts in advance and choose things that won’t melt or go bad easily.

Some great options are:

  • Cookies
  • Brownies
  • Cupcakes
  • Rice Krispie Treats
  • Strawberry shortcake
  • Peach cobbler
  • Muffins
  • Pie

Keeping Food Warm

Now that you’ve cooked everything, how do you keep it warm once it’s taken outside to your tailgate party?  Nobody likes eating lukewarm foods that are meant to be served hot, so here are some tips for making your event a success.

How do you keep chili warm at a tailgate?

The tailgater’s secret weapon is a crockpot or slow cooker.  Even an Instant pot can be used to keep dishes warm.  All you’ll need is an outlet and an extension cord to plug it in.  Then just put it on a low setting so it stays warm the entire time.

How do you keep food hot when tailgating?

For foods that can’t be served in a crockpot, try cooking or heating them right before you head out to tailgate.  Wrap them in foil to help them retain their heat or use aluminum food service containers.

Pack all your hot foods together or put them inside an insulated bag so they can keep each other warm.  Set out smaller portions, keeping the rest warm inside your car and re-filling serving dishes once the food runs low.

Keeping cold foods cold

For your cold dishes, bring a large and efficient cooler with lots of ice to put everything inside.  Dishes which were made in advance should be given enough time to cool completely in the refrigerator.

Instead of ice blocks or gel packs, ice will be more effective because it can surround the entire container of food.  You can also layer ice between containers, so it stays insulated better.

Whenever possible, don’t display cold foods in direct sunlight.  If there’s no natural shade, hang a blanket or put up an umbrella.  Make sure to put any leftovers into a cooler as soon as possible so they don’t spoil.

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