How to Keep Food Safe at a Tailgate Party

Three Methods:Choosing Safer FoodsKeeping Food at the Right TemperatureKeeping Food Preparation and Serving Hygienic

When you're going to the big game the last thing you want to happen is for you or a friend to get sick due to some bad food. Follow these tips on ways to keep your food safe for eating.

Method 1
Choosing Safer Foods

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    Choose food that is less likely to cause problems. Unlike a party at home, you will find it much harder to keep foods cold or warm enough to fend off bacterial growth. You can minimize the risk of bacterial contamination of food by choosing foods that travel well outdoors. Some examples include:
    • Dry food: Bread, rolls, crackers, etc. are usually safe choices. It's what you add to them that requires care, such as hot dogs, luncheon meats and salads.
    • Food high in sugar: Sugar acts as a preservative and, in conjunction with dryness, can make foods safe for the tailgate party. For example, cake (no cream filling), cookies and candies.
    • Fresh fruits and vegetables: Provided these are washed and handled properly, they are generally safe to enjoy at the tailgate party.
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    Be careful with foods that can quickly turn bad. Food that contains meat, milk and egg can go bad quickly when not refrigerated or cooked properly. These are the foods to be most careful with.
    • Other foods that are potentially hazardous unless great care is taken to keep them at the right temperature include rice, custard, potatoes, puddings and stuffing. Each of these food types needs to be kept and served at the right temperature.
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    Choose pre-packaged single-serves. Food that is packaged individually for each person, wrapped in food grade plastic and kept at the right temperature tends to be a safe option for tailgate occasions. Individual packaging minimizes the amount of handling from other people during the party.
    • Cream-based dips are not a great idea at a tailgate party––many people dipping into the same dip and the need to leave the item out in the open can lead to it fast becoming a hazardous food item. On the other hand, an individual tomato-based dip, such as salsa, can be a great way to share around those corn chips.
      • Make salsa at home, then place individual portions into separate containers with lids. Keep refrigerated and hand out straight from the cooler just when everyone is ready to dip their chips.

Method 2
Keeping Food at the Right Temperature

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    Keep cold food ice cold. It's absolutely vital that your cold stuff stays cold. To this end:
    • Use an appliance thermometer to make sure your food stays below 40ºF/4.4ºC. Food that doesn't stay cold will start to go bad within two hours.
    • Use thermally lined/insulated picnic/lunch bags or coolers to keep foods cool. Add ice packs or ice to keep it even cooler. The food should be packed into these the moment it is removed from the refrigerator. Always allow for thorough chilling time if you're baking or cooking foods to take.
    • If you have a vehicle/portable fridge, keep your cold foods in it until they're ready to be used.
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    Keep hot food hot. If you're bringing hot food to the tailgate party, you must keep it hot.
    • To keep food like soup hot, take your insulated container, fill it with boiling water and let it sit for 2 minutes. Empty it and then fill the container with the piping hot food. This will keep the food steaming for several hours.
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    Make it hot. Meat and poultry need to reach the correct internal temperature while grilling. So get out your food thermometer, and check the temperature before you serve:
    • Hamburger patties and pork need to reach at least 160ºF/71.1ºC
    • Chicken needs to hit a smoking hot 170ºF/76.6ºC before serving
    • Beef, lamb, and pork need to be cooked to 165ºF/73.8ºC
    • Medium rare beef, veal, and lamb steaks need to be cooked to 145ºF/62.7ºC
    • Poultry breast meat needs to be cooked to 170ºF/76.6ºC
    • Dark meat needs to be cooked to 180ºF/82.2ºC
    • All pork needs to be cooked to 160ºF/71.10C.

Method 3
Keeping Food Preparation and Serving Hygienic

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    Pack properly. How you pack the food is an important part of preventing the spread of contaminants from one food to another.
    • Pack all meats separately from ready-to-eat foods. Juices from the meat could spoil food like cheese and vegetables, so be sure to wrap securely.
    • Pack dairy produce on its own, inside a cooler.
    • When you bring food back home, discard any food that has come into contact with other food; this includes shared dishes that have had forks and the like stuck into them, as you have no idea what guests had on their utensils.
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    Stay clean. Anytime you touch raw meat clean your hands before touching food, both for preparation and for serving. Clean them again after touching the food.
    • Use moist towelettes thoroughly to make sure that you don't transmit germs or bacteria onto other foods or utensils. Provide plenty of spare towelettes and antibacterial cleanser for guests to use too––place in an obvious spot.
    • Wipe down everything before you serve.
    • Use only clean utensils for serving and eating with.
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    Consider purchasing food right before serving it. This doesn't mean buying it from the pricey vendors; it means stopping at the nearest supermarket before you enter the tailgate party, stocking up and placing the foods into the appropriate containers at the supermarket carpark. If you can reduce the travel time for the food, so much the better.
    • Avoid purchasing more than what will be eaten––that way, there will be no temptation to hoard leftovers and eat them later, when they have turned bad.
    • Take your cooler bag into the supermarket. Place food items straight into it from the refrigerator shelf, then open it at the cashier for purchase and ask that it be repacked straight back into the cooler.
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    Grill carefully. When grilling, only remove the amount of meat that can fit on the grill. Leave the rest in the cooler until it's time to cook the next round. After grilling food, serve immediately. Anything that is not eaten straight away should be kept hot or placed into a cooler.
    • Grilled food left outside for more than hour should be discarded.
    • Refer back to the section above for the heating temperatures required.


  • Bring extra water for cleaning; there may not be any at the site.
  • If you don't like the disposable nature of towelettes, make your own. Dampen a set of face washers and place inside an empty baby wipes/ice cream or similar lidded container. Have a spare plastic bag for used ones to go into. Add an antibacterial soap pump and you're all set.
  • Marinades for meat must be kept refrigerated.
  • Keep drinks in a separate cooler from the food; that way, there is no risk of cross-contamination (or squashing, etc.). It also means that the food won't be subjected to constant opening and closing of the cooler.
  • Eat take-out foods within 2 hours of purchasing.


  • If you don't know whether or not the food item is safe, dispose of it.
  • Food poisoning substances are undetectable. You cannot smell, see or taste food that harbors food poisoning agents.
  • A cooler won't stay cool in a hot car. Place it in an air-conditioned car or in cool shade. If this isn't possible, see if you can find a temporary refrigerator space to "borrow".

Things You'll Need

  • 2 coolers
  • 1 insulated container
  • 1 food thermometer
  • 1 carton moist towelettes
  • 1 roll paper towels
  • Ice

Sources and Citations

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