Tailgate Party Ideas and Tips

Nothing beats a good tailgate party with friends! It’s one of America’s favorite pastimes where we gather with food, alcohol beverages and plenty of socializing and fun, all taking place around a vehicle. These tips will guide you whether you’re tailgating at a sporting event, outdoor concert or festival.

tailgating set up on back of vehicle with hatchback open.

What is Tailgating?

Tailgating is a game day party set up around a car or truck with an open back. They’re typically set up in parking lots or fields surrounding the stadium while you’re cheering on college teams or pro sports.

I’ve been tailgating since college, and continued into adulthood for football games, concerts, horse races & steeplechases, Nascar races, and festivals.

A tailgate party combines the best of camping and a potluck party as people can bring their own drinks and food to share, or you can grill on site.

If your vehicle doesn’t have a tailgate just set up tables outside the vehicle, and put up a party tent to help define the space and get out of the sun.

red themed tailgate party on back of truck.

What to Serve

I’m sharing some recipes below but here are the main things to keep in mind.

  • Popular tailgate food includes picnic and grilling staples such as bratwurst, hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, fried chicken and bbq. You can also serve your favorite summer side dishes like coleslaw or potato salad.
  • Tailgating typically involves the consumption of beer, large batches of punch, or soft drinks.
  • Snacks include potato chips, dips, tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole among others.
  • If you have an adapter for your vehicle you can actually plug in a slow cooker to keep food warm. Chili is great for this and I’ve got a fun way to serve it below.
  • My main philosophy is to keep things simple, that’s why I personally like to take food that’s already cooked through and just needs warming. For instance kielbasa, smoked sausage, and hot dogs.

Whatever you decide to serve, make sure it’s easy to eat while standing or sitting with a plate on your lap.

PARTY SHORTCUT: A classic Southern tailgate staple is a bucket of KFC chicken or Chick-fil-A nuggets platter.

tailgate party on back of truck with red punch and crates holding sandwiches.

Grilling Tips

It may be fun barbecuing and grilling food with fellow fans but when it comes to tailgating you MUST be prepared. Follow these safety tips.

bacon-wrapped chicken cooking on grill.
two burgers cooking on grill.

If you’re grilling burgers, have the patties already formed and ready to place on the grill.

Chicken or kabobs should be seasoned or marinated and ready to add.

Never reuse utensils used for raw meat on cooked or ready-to-eat food. That goes for plates and dishes too.

PRO TIP: Avoid cross contamination at all costs! Use latex gloves and long tongs to handle raw meat.

chicken on skewers with dipping sauce on black plate.
bacon wrapped chicken on toothpicks on wood board.

Grilling Recipes

Here are some great grilling recipes. You can also consider a hot dog roast with hot dogs, bratwurst or smoked sausage.

  • Juicy burgers. Prepare and shape the patties at home so all you have to do it place them on the grill.
  • Teriyaki chicken skewers. Skewers are easy to place on the grill because the end of the stick acts as a handle you can pick up.
  • Jerk chicken skewers. Prepare skewers before you leave so all you have to do is place them on the grill.
  • Bacon wrapped chicken bites. Prepare the bites at home. Place them on the grill using long tongs. Do not touch anything else with the utensils that touch raw meat.
pennant banner spells go team hanging on car tailgate.

Hang a DIY pennant banner on the back of the car or truck to help establish the party atmosphere.

How to Pack a Cooler

  • Start with a clean cooler and chilled food and drinks.
  • Have a separate cooler for drinks and add a layer of cans or bottles on the bottom. Top with ice and let it fall in between the crevices to chill everything.
  • Use a separate cooler for raw meat if possible. Otherwise make sure it is wrapped completely or packed in storage containers so no juices can run out, and put them on a layer of ice at the bottom of the cooler.
  • Next, use water tight storage containers to pack other foods like cooked meats, cold cuts or side salads.
  • Use a separate cooler for warm and hot storage.
  • Pack your food in a ready-to-serve state as much as possible to avoid unnecessary needs for tools like can opener or storage container. This includes condiments!
  • Use chilling packs, ice, or frozen bottles of water to help keep things cold. As the bottled water melts, you can drink it!

PARTY TIP: The fuller a cooler is, the better it will hold its temperature. Pack it as full as possible and use rolled towels to take up any extra space.

outdoor table with plaid cloth, dips and football cheering decorations.
fried chicken fingers in disposable baskets with beer on outside table.

Easy Make Ahead Recipes

If you’re like me and you don’t want to worry about cooking on site or handling raw meat, take along an easy-travel tailgate menu with some of these items that don’t have to be served while they’re hot or cold.

Keep Hot Food Hot

Use a smaller cooler like a heating drawer. Wrap hot sandwiches and other food while they’re still warm, in aluminum foil. Put them in an insulated cooler with other hot items, a heating pad or hot water bottles.

Newspaper (if you can find it) can act as an insulator too.

saucy chicken wings in paper tray with chips and honey wand.
ham and swiss hot mini sandwiches with football picks on top.

Warm Food Recipes

Try my favorite bacon appetizers for those early morning games.

Buffet Set Up

Pack your car or truck efficiently when you’re heading out for tailgating. Make storage bins, baskets, crates, and wood boxes do double duty. They can hold items during the drive and then be used as levels and hard surfaces to place food on when you’re setting up.

Use an Easy-Up tent to help define the tailgating party and to shade you from the sun.

football tailgate party on back of truck with basket and cheering gear.

Show your team spirit with themed decorations. Use your team’s colors in table coverings, blankets and throws, pompoms, and other décor.

football party snacks on green turf with pompom and megaphone decoration.

In leu of a traditional table cloth or runner, place turf grass or kraft paper as a base for the food and drinks.

old soda crates used to hold popcorn bags.

Rustic items like wood crates and baskets can double as storage while transporting to the event, and then be used in the food display.

Galvanized tiered servers, trays and wood serving boards are also a great way to display food.

basket of football party decorations and pennant.

Fill a basket with cheering paraphernalia like poms, megaphones and pennants. You can use them during the game and as photo props for the “gram.”

tailgating party snacks on table outside.

Provide snacks that are easy to grab and nibble on. Take a canister of popcorn or sweet & salty Chex mix.

Take mini bags of chips for individual portions.

red punch in clear drink dispenser on tailgate.

A color coordinated punch, either adult versions or kid-friendly, becomes a centerpiece when you serve it from a dispenser.

beer bottles in small bucket of ice, outdoors.

Here’s a fun idea. Place buckets of beer on ice around the tailgating spot so people can grab one easily without opening a cooler over and over.

chili served in a can with wood spoons.

Serve chili in clean up-cycled cans. They are great vessels and can be thrown away for easy clean up. I wrapped these cans of chili with chicken and sausage with corrugated paper similar to coffee cup wraps, to keep your hands from getting hot. TIP: Add a couple of glue dots to keep the band in place, or make sure you tie it on very snug so your can doesn’t slip out (party foul!).

turkey and cheese sandwiches wrapped in red paper and tied with string.

Serve a variety of small deli sandwiches that are wrapped in color coordinated paper and twine.

PRO TIP: Upcycle an empty laundry detergent container – the kind that holds liquid detergent and has a dispenser spigot at the bottom. Clean it out and fill it with water that you can use as a hand washing station.

See this genius idea here.

What to Drink

As I mentioned earlier, consuming alcoholic beverages is a big part of any tailgate party. A variety of 6-packs of beer on ice is as classic as it gets, but you could step it up a notch and get a keg or pony keg for the day! It’s the ultimate way to be a social butterfly.

PARTY TIP: Get a keg of beer for your tailgating party. It’s a great way to encourage the social aspect of the gathering.

golden color punch in clear dispenser with copper cups.

Large Batch Punch Recipes

Here are some more large batch punch recipes you can make ahead and serve from a large thermos or drink dispenser.

Beer margarita. This may be my personal favorite for a tailgate. A large batch of beer margaritas combines beer and tequila and is simple to make. You won’t believe how refreshing it is!

Sangria. Whether you like red wine or white wine, there’s a sangria recipe for you. These are great because you can double a recipe to feed a crowd. Try this fall apple sangria or this delicious spiced rum sangria. For a lighter touch, add white wine peach sangria.

Flavored lemonade. Keep in mind that not everyone wants to drink adult beverages all day. Plus, someone has to drive home! Serve up a batch of flavored lemonade made the easy way, in flavors like autumn spiced, strawberry, or pomegranate peach lemonade.

PARTY TIP: Did you forget to chill your beverages beforehand? Fill a cooler with ice and add plenty of water. Sprinkle on some rock salt (or regular) to help keep the temperature as cold as possible. Now submerge the drinks and let them chill for at least 10 minutes. Help the process along by stirring the cans or bottles around in the icy water.

RELATED: What to wear to a tailgate party and still look chic.

pile of football decorated cookies.
chocolate and nut dessert bars on white platter with mini football goal posts as decoration.

Dessert Recipes That Travel

Even though the day is largely about savory snacks and adult beverages, don’t skip the dessert! You want no-fuss treats that travel well and that you can eat with one hand.

Things like brownies, bars and cookies are perfect for tailgating and you can make them ahead. Try these yummy recipes.

cornhole game set on lawn.

What to Do at a Tailgate Party

If you’re tailgating in a field or in a parking lot, it’s fun to have activities to do. Some classic favorites are cornhole, bocce ball, ladder ball, and football for tossing.

  • Cornhole
  • Toss the football
  • Frisbee
  • Beer Pong
  • Flip Cup
  • Cards or Poker
  • Giant Jenga
  • Giant Connect 4
three ladies outside tailgating clinking glasses in Cheers.

Packing List

Here’s a check list of items you don’t want to forget when you go tailgating.

  • Pre-moistened hand wipes like Wet Ones
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Water for cleaning hands or other items.
  • Paper towers
  • Latex gloves
  • Trash bags
  • Easy Up Tent
  • Folding tables, table covers, and stadium chairs
  • Bluetooth speaker
  • Serving and cooking utensils such as large tongs, spatula, fork, knife
  • Plates, cups, utensils, napkins
  • Heat proof hand mitt or potholder
  • Bottle opener
  • Grill, fuel or charcoal, lighter fluid and matches, and instant-read thermometer
  • Blankets
  • Rain poncho
  • Ice and frozen cold packs
  • Supplies for leftover food, including containers with lids, Ziplock bags, aluminum foil or saran wrap
  • Punch thermos or server with spout
  • Event Tickets!

Now you should be all set for a tailgate party. What’s your favorite outdoor event to go to?

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4 Comments

  1. We love your idea to serve chili in “up-cycled” cans! What a cute idea! Thanks for the great tip, we’re sharing!
    Cheers,
    Katie

  2. I was looking for tips online and found your site! Seriously though, our football party this weekend is going to be much better with the advice you gave. Something I learned last year; have more than one game for the guests to watch! I tried this last year to great success, but was only able to have two TVs going. This year will be different though, now that I have the Hopper. It will be even easier, as the Hopper has three tuners, which will allow me to watch three different games, live, on three separate TVs at the same time. People are so varied in which team they support; this will give everyone a chance to see theirs in action!

    1. You’re exactly right, Parker. The more games available, the happier your guests are. My husband got the Hopper too 😀

      1. Nice! I love this thing. My guests were pretty impressed too, but I think I unintentionally backed myself into the perma-host position LOL!