Josie Ortega samples the favorite tailgate food that makes for a fancy-yet-easy parking lot party on game day!
Favorite Tailgate Food for a Party in a Parking Lot
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 a 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 side show to a game or other main event. As parties go, the tailgate is relatively casual and low-key. 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.
Favorite Tailgate Food to Make Ahead of Time
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 set up, 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.
Hearty Tailgate Crowd Pleasers
Just because, technically, we’re serving finger food, that doesn’t mean anyone should leave hungry. These filling, protein-rich choices will disappear quickly:
- Beef Sliders
- A platter of chicken tenders from your favorite chicken place. For us that’s Chick Fil-A in general, Raisin’ Canes in Charlottesville.
- Ham biscuits. Here’s the recipe from my friend Ashley’s mom:
- Hawaiian rolls
- Country ham (or a very salty variety), sliced thin at the deli
- Provolone cheese
- Poppy seeds
- Layer the ham and cheese in the rolls. Melt a stick of butter or so, and mix in a tablespoon of poppyseeds. Drizzle the mixture over the rolls with a brush or spoon. Wrap in aluminum foil and bake until the cheese melts.
Classic Tailgate Sides
With sides, you can make sure that at least there’s an opportunity to get servings of fruit and vegetables!
- Jalapeno poppers
- Cheese straws
- Cheese board or relish tray, with plenty of pickles!
- Chips and guacamole, salsa, cheese dip
- Spinach and artichoke dip
- Apple slices with caramel dip
- Buckeyes (chocolate and peanut butter balls)
- Cookies or bar desserts, like brownies or blondies. In mixed company — meaning tailgate attendees are supporting different teams — you might offer competing platters of cookies, with icing in team colors. Whoever’s cookies disappear first is more likely to win the match!
Favorite Cold or Hot Tailgate Drinks
Hydration is key, and it’s a great area to have some fun in an otherwise simple menu. Beer is a standard tailgate beverage, of course, but I like some other options, too:
- In warm weather, I like to mix up a pitcher of Pimm’s for a refreshing signature cocktail.
- For a morning or mid-day event, a Bloody Mary station with fixins is a hit!
- In cold weather, offer hot cider (with an option to spike it or not), or hot chocolate.
- For the kids, provide juice boxes, or a fun spritzer with sparkling water or sprite. And don’t forget to add a lime slice or sprig of mint to make them feel oh-so-grown up.
- Be sure to include non-alcoholic drinks, and plenty of water. Watch out for heat and dehydration.
Other Favorite Tailgate Essentials
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:
- napkins, paper towels, wet wipes
- garbage bags
- towels, blankets
- a change of clothes for every family member!
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:
- table cloth, flowers, napkins in Team Colors!
- using one cooler for cold drinks; another cooler for hot food and drinks
- Corn hole, a football, play doh in team colors to entertain crabby kids
- A sharpie to write names on solo cups, like my great aunt Reba!
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!
Embracing That Tailgating Mentality
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 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.
Favorite Tailgate Food for Many Occasions
Few events are more fun than a tailgate party with good friends at a college football game in fall. Whether the level of sport is collegiate, professional, or preschool — being outside and enjoying each other’s company, as well as 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. I think 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, 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.