If you’ve got some wicked face paint, beer, and a bunch of loud, sweaty dudes, 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. 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.
1. Research the site: Are you even allowed to tailgate there? If you want to grill, can you use an open flame?
2. Check the time: 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. 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.
3. Finger food always rules: 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.
4. Don’t cheap out on coolers: You should have at least two—one for food and one for drinks, so people aren’t rummaging around the bloody bags of meat to get a beer.
5. Don’t be a moocher: 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.
6. Prep at home: 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.
7. Pack smart: 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.
8. Don’t forget the most important thing: But if you do, 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.
9. The food’s also pretty important. Check out our full gallery of tailgating recipes with all the fuel you need for a good parking lot party. Some highlights: Ginger Mojitos for a Crowd, Grilled Maple-Mustard Chicken Wings, Grilled Steak Quesadillas, Grilled Shrimp-Boil Skewers, the Perfect Cheeseburger, Celery and Olive Orzo Salad, and S’more Bars.