Josie Ortega samples the favorite tailgate food that makes for a fancy-yet-easy parking lot party on game day!
The genius of the tailgate party, I think, lies in that perfect combination of high and low. The table cloth covering an old battered card table. The men and women, carefully dressed to impress in their team colors, whether that's in a jersey, a bow tie—or a statement necklace that one only bought for the sake of football games at one's dear alma mater. (Otherwise, I'd never wear orange.) One way or another, everyone's dressed up, hanging around in a parking lot.
The tailgate party serves as a preamble or sideshow to a big game or another main event. As parties go, the tailgate is a relatively casual and low-key festivity. We're all here to enjoy ourselves and watch a game, after all. We get to release some pressure while enjoying the sense of anticipation. Importantly, although it's by definition not the main event, tailgating features the best parts of a well-planned party — namely good food and drinks.
The setting for a tailgate party can range from campers equipped with full kitchens all the way down to the cooler bag I pack for my daughter's Friday evening soccer practice for an impromptu snack and happy hour. Everybody wins! The common themes: good food and drinks, a festive atmosphere, a common purpose that's bonding the crowd
Before anything else, it's important to know the regulations and situation at your tailgate site. If we're benefiting from an elaborate tailgate setup or a venue that allows a smoker or propane grill, then it makes sense to go wild with barbecue, grilling burgers, hot dogs, sausages, you name it.
Usually, though, at a more standard lift-the-vehicle's-tailgate tailgate party, we've got to narrow our scope and prepare everything ahead of time. I recommend sticking with food that doesn't require utensils and that everyone can nibble on without a big mess.
Make your tailgate party a potluck where everyone brings their favorite entree, appetizer, side, or dessert. Whether you’re sitting down in your camp chair for a big meal or snacking as you hop from car to car all day long, you’ll be loving all of your favorite tailgate party food.
Just because technically we're serving finger food, that doesn't mean anyone should leave hungry. These filling, protein-rich choices will disappear quickly:
The perfect hand-held food for a crowd
a few seconds
a few seconds
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12 count package
Hawaiian Sweet Rolls
dried minced onion
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350F.
Slice the rolls in half so you have a section of tops and section of bottoms. Try to keep them together as one unit. Put the bottom sections of rolls in prepared pan.
Evenly layer half of the ham over the rolls.
Evenly layer the cheese.
Even layer the other half of the ham.
Add the top section of rolls and set aside.
Put the butter into a bowl and heat in the microwave until melted (about 1 minute).
Whisk together the mustard, poppy seeds, onion, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper.
Evenly pour the butter mixture over the rolls. Use a spatula to spread over the tops.
Cover with aluminum foil and allow rolls to stand for about 5-10 minutes.
Bake covered for about 20 minutes or until cheese is melted. Uncover and bake about 3 to 5 minutes.
Slice into individual sliders and serve immediately.
A platter of chicken tenders from your favorite chicken place. For us, that's Chick-Fil-A nuggets in general, Raising Cane's chicken strips when we're in Charlottesville.
Buffalo wings. Although these can be messy, they really are just the essence of game-day food. Spicy, savory, deep-fried chicken wings are such a cultural staple that we have a restaurant chain dedicated to buffalo wings and watching sports. I think that pretty much sums it up.
Fried Chicken. Whether it’s KFC, Popeyes, or even your favorite local spot, a bucket of crunchy, juicy, bone-in fried chicken is always a crowd-pleaser! Family meal deals usually come with hot biscuits or an option for 1-2 pints of sides like mashed potatoes, baked beans, mac-n-cheese, or coleslaw. You say "fast food," I say convenience and an extra hour or two without cooking.
You could easily make a meal out of all these delicious sides, am I right?
Try to at least make it an opportunity to get some fruits and vegetables. But if not, that's okay.
Hydration is key, and it's a great area to have some fun in an otherwise simple menu:
Presumably, the family is out for the day to tailgate and watch some kind of sporting event, so we can't neglect those items that mothers everywhere know someone might need! Including, but not limited to:
Remembering that details make a difference. Great hosts and hostesses don't have to make all the food from scratch! But they do think things through, and they have fun themselves. So we might want to consider:
And one of my favorite pieces of party advice: "Decant everything." Bring your platters, plates, and bowls, and display those delicious store-bought cookies to their best advantage!
For seriously elaborate tailgate parties, visit the Grove before an Ole Miss football game. It’s the tailgate version of glamping!
My husband grew up in New York City, then attended a small liberal arts college upstate. While he loves tailgating with me in Virginia, he was staggered when we visited my brother in Oxford, MS, and saw the scene ahead of the Rebels’ game against LSU. We’re talking tents with chandeliers and spreads of party food that beat most wedding receptions.
Even at the Grove, it’s portable. That ornate chandelier will be packed away in a truck until next time. Anyway, some might call chandeliers with beads and faux feathers in team colors tacky. But—I think they’re fun! And that’s the ticket. A tailgate party is fun, and our favorite tailgate food need not be SEC-level to be excellent.
Few events are more fun than a tailgate party with good friends at a college football game in the fall. Whether the level of sport is collegiate, professional, or preschool — being outside and enjoying each other's company, as well as our favorite food and tasty treats, is a recipe for lasting friendship.
To tailgate is to pack a literal party into a vehicle. Can we please create a culture of tailgating at the opera? I don't go to the opera, but you get the point. In my opinion, we'd benefit from expanding this mobile party mentality beyond the confines of sporting events.
We recently invited friends with kids for a weekend brunch, and when it was upon us, our house was a mess, and we lacked menu inspiration. Until we made it a tailgate party. We made the ham biscuits, brought grapes and applesauce pouches, and packed a cooler. And we dined at the local playground. I actually did bring flowers and a table cloth. At that moment, adding those extra touches was way more fun than cleaning my house.