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8 tailgate grilling ideas for the ultimate party food

Best grilling and chilling tailgate tips

Tailgating season is upon us, and for sports fans across the nation, that means firing up the portable grill and kicking back with some cold beverages. For some, it marks the beginning of fall and the march toward winter; for others, it’s a cooler extension of summer festivities. But to have a successful tailgate party, you have to have the right food, drinks and environment to rally the fans before the big game or stadium concert. With some key planning, the right equipment and a tailgate-ready vehicle, your next parking lot party is sure to score points.

Prepare for your tailgate party

Before you start packing the truck or van, you have to be fully prepared to provide enough of the right dishes and drinks for your crew. Plan an easily portable menu that will satisfy your whole team, meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. For inspiration, reach for a recipe book that offers meals and techniques that are ready-made for tailgating.

Make a checklist, either on your smartphone or the old-fashioned way, to make sure you have all your supplies on game day. Pack your dry supplies in advance, make a plan to pick up fresh ice and pack a portable trash can for easy cleanup. Know the schedule — when the lot opens, gates open and the start of the event — to ensure you can use your time effectively for an easy-breezy tailgate party.

Grill for the whole gang

For every event, there is a great grill that will make the most of your space and resources. As attached as you may be to your backyard charcoal kettle, it’s essential to find a portable grill that delivers the same standard of performance on the go. There are a lot of smaller options on the market that save space, but with less grilling area, you’ll be cooking twice as long. Also, pack a portable set of grill tools to ensure you’re not caught fumbling the food.

Blend simple with variety

When planning your menu, it’s easy to overthink. Rather than trying to impress with too much variety, keep it simple and practical. You can find a lot of variety in sausages, for instance; cured brats, chicken-based wursts and veggie franks are all easy crowd pleasers. If you have more of a burger crowd, don’t waste time trying to emulate your favorite pub. Use high-quality ingredients like organic beef patties, top-notch deli-sliced cheese and fresh-baked buns to elevate the basic burger without overdoing it.

Chilling with drinks

Once you have an idea of how many friends plan to participate, you can start plotting your beverage plan. For keeping cans cold, find a trustworthy cooler that keeps ice cold for hours while holding as many cans as possible. When choosing drinks, keep all of your guests in mind — not just the beer drinkers. There are some great craft non-alcoholic beers being made by independent brewers and national macrobreweries, as well. Throw in some still and sparkling water to keep everyone hydrated while you’re at it. Tailgating is more fun when you can quench your thirst.

Pack the snacks

When it comes to a successful tailgate party, you can’t slack on the snacks. Finger foods are an easy way to hold a hungry crowd over before the main course. If you have the space to lay out a mini-spread, chips and dip, meat and cheese trays and snack mixes are popular staples. Be sure to include a veggie tray to add some healthy snacks to the mix. If you want to go the extra yard, warm pretzels, chicken wings and barbecue meatballs are all crowd-pleasers. For those who want an early afternoon buzz, a Bloody Mary bar blends finger foods and fresh veggies with spicy tomato juice and booze for a game-day hangover remedy. 

Warm up a chilly day 

When the weather cools, there are plenty of ways to warm up with food and drink. Warm artichoke dip, hot queso and homemade chili are excellent additions, provided you have the power to plug in a slow cooker or two. After all, who doesn’t love a potluck on wheels? Consider investing in a small generator to avoid relying on your vehicle’s battery. 

As far as warm beverages are concerned, there are some easy-to-prepare hot drinks that can be served as-is or spiked with booze for the grownups. Hot mulled cider is a fall favorite that can be enjoyed by the whole family; or, add a little spiced rum to give it an adult kick.

Setting up for success

There are a ton of accessories and tools at hand in your home that are not built into your vehicle. Some foldable tables are portable and easy to set up, and others come with built-in conveniences. Between yourself and the rest of your team, make sure there are enough portable chairs for anyone who needs to sit. Pack plenty of can koozies, too.

Prep as much food as possible the night before, like skewering kabobs, forming burger patties and mixing up fresh salads. Pack your condiments in an empty cardboard six-pack carrier, freeze some water bottles and don’t forget the plates, napkins and plasticware. Give yourself enough time to set up once you reach your site and look out for any rules and regulations before getting too comfortable.

Get festive

Whether it’s a home or away game, an amphitheater reunion or a music festival, get your gang hyped by setting the right mood. Theme your tailgate to match the event with things like a football field tablecloth and other decorations, or set up a playlist of your crew’s favorite tunes to get the party started. For the superfans, face paint will help them stand out in the crowd, especially at away games. If you have some extra space, bust out the portable cornhole set and get the competition started early. Other great tailgating games like ring toss, giant Jenga and beer pong can get folks in the mood for the game — just make sure nobody gets over served.


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Matt Fleming writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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