Unlike my husband's sports-obsessed family, I didn't really participate in sports as a kid or even care much about organized sports until college. Caught up in the excitement of football season, I started to appreciate that the season signaled fall, (mostly) friendly rivalry, and an excuse to hang out and party.
I didn't tailgate much in college, but I was indoctrinated into the ritual when I started tagging along with my husband's family to their elaborate pre-and-post-game tailgates. And while tailgating isn't that different from a regular barbecue, the fact that you take it on the road presents a new set of challenges. Here's how to do it right!
1. Research the tailgating site: Even before you get to the packing and prepping of food, make sure you know where you can park, what the facilities are like, and what the rules are. Are open flames allowed so that you can grill? Is there running water, bathroom facilities, or rules about alcohol? What time can get there, and how late can you stay?
Think about the weather and the time of day when planning — will it be hot or rainy and a tent would be useful? And make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get there and set up.
2. Pack in, pack out: Unless a tailgate site explicitly says so, assume that everything you bring in comes home with you, including trash. Make sure you have plenty of heavy-duty trash bags, figure out how you'll handle recycling and packaging leftover food, and think about how you'll pack and bring home a dirty grill.
3. Multiple coolers are a must: Two coolers are the minimum — one for food and one for drinks. If you have a third for the raw food that needs to be cooked, even better! Make sure foods are wrapped tightly to prevent leaking and cross-contamination, and pack the things you'll need immediately at the top.
Label your drink coolers and tie a bottle opener to the handle so it's convenient and never gets lost. Make sure you have enough ice for drinks and to keep everything cold until you get home.
4. Grill prep: Make sure your grill is clean and that you have the necessary grill tools, enough fuel to last through all the grilling, and a portable fire extinguisher just in case.
5. Food choices: Have ready-to-go finger foods and snacks that you can put out immediately to keep people happy while the grill gets fired up. Keep more substantial food items simple and easy-to-serve. Bonus points if you don't even need plates to eat them off of, like kabobs and quesadillas! If you plan on tailgating after the game too, pack some different snacks and foods to grill then so that you have some variety.
→ Read more: 20 Tantalizing Tailgating Recipes
6. Food prep: Do as much as you can at home, including marinating, cutting up vegetables, threading things onto skewers, or forming burger patties. Mix up big batches of drinks or cocktails so all you have to do is pour.
7. Equipment: Pack a few folding or portable chairs and tables. A tablecloth looks nice and makes for easier cleanup, and a few big stackable plastic bins can serve as trash and recycling bins. Don't forget a cutting board, sharp knife, and serving platters. Foil can help scrape down a dirty grill, keep food warm, or wrap up leftovers.
8. Water, water, water: Freeze some water bottles to both keep the coolers cold and so you'll have something icy to drink if it's a hot day. Bring along a big water container with a dispenser for handwashing too.