5 Ideas for a Game-Changing Tailgate Party

5 Ideas for a Game-Changing Tailgate Party

Gearing up to hang out in the parking lot before the big game? Follow our tips for a successful shindig.

Tailgating is a science as much as it is an art. Sure, you can toss drinks and sandwiches into a cooler or even get a bit more ambitious with a portable grill for burgers and dogs. But have you been to a big sporting event lately? Some of those folks go all out. Being able to create a memorable party far from the comforts of your home kitchen means switching up your thinking and planning, says Mark McDonough, a Panera Bread® chef and Food Team member. “A lot of us think we’re great cooks, but when we go outside, the game changes.” Here’s what you need to know for a successful tailgate.

Plan well. Get the food that you’ll cook on-site completely prepped before you leave. For example, cut and skewer meat for kebobs, marinate chicken parts, shape ground beef or turkey into patties and stack them between sheets of wax paper. Think ahead about supplies too, and don’t skimp on essentials like ice (you always need more, say experienced tailgaters). Designate one cooler to hold ice only—for drinks and to keep leftover food from spoiling. Be sure you have ample charcoal or a full propane tank so you don’t run low on fuel at a critical cooking moment. Proper planning is also about timing: Arrive early enough to cook and eat before the game, but also allow time for cleanup so you don’t miss kickoff.

Shrink your sandwiches. No reason your tailgate party food has to consist of massive sandwiches and burgers; a smaller item makes a fun change. “I love small portions for variety—you get all kinds of different flavors,” Mark says. Head to your local Panera Bread to help build your finger food menu. For example, Panera’s soft Sprouted Whole Grain Rolls are great for sliders. “Or take our Asiago Cheese Focaccia and cut it in half crosswise,” he says. “All of a sudden, it’s this giant hamburger bun.” Just cut it in pieces to create multiple smaller buns. Ciabatta works well for making long sandwiches that you cut into sections and put on a platter. “And the demi loaves of Three Seed Bread lend themselves to really tasty crostini: Spread bread slices with olive oil, grill them, and then top them with a caprese salad or deli meat or any leftovers you have,” Mark recommends.

Be storage-smart. Coolers come in handy, but think more broadly about your storage needs, both for the party and for its aftermath. Consider everything you’ll need to store, and use the method that makes the most sense: a plastic bin lined with a trash bag for garbage; airtight containers for cooler-bound foods; a metal bucket for disposing of spent but still-warm coals; foil containers of all sizes for food prep. Tip: Label containers and coolers so you and your guests don’t keep lifting the cooler full of raw meat in search of a soda.  

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Come up with clever ways to make use of what you already have to help the tailgating cause. For example, cardboard six-pack holders (like for bottled soda) can sort condiments, seasonings, dipping vegetables, or cutlery. Going the extra mile and avoiding paper products? Earmark a plastic bin for dirty dishes.

Stay clean and safe. Spare a thought for your own and your guests’ safety. The same rules apply outdoors as at home, Mark says, so “use separate plates and tongs, or wear plastic gloves, when handling raw meat.” In addition, set up a hand-washing station to make cleaning and sanitizing convenient. Don’t forget the sunscreen and insect repellent—bug bites and sunburn can turn what was supposed to be a party into an irritating mess.