Table up, chairs out, spatula at the ready… it’s game day! Hours before the players take the field, a sports ritual has already started in the parking lot—the tailgate. A pop-up party fueled by team spirit, tailgating now involves elaborate setups, multicourse meals, and activities beyond just chugging beer. To make sure your next pregame gathering goes off without a fumble, follow these tips from fans across the country.
1. Go Local with Your Menu
There’s more to pregame dining than just hot dogs and hamburgers. For an extra boost of hometown spirit, let your city’s characteristic cuisine guide your parking lot menu. Kansas City Chiefs fans have been known to roll out smokers to barbecue their ribs and burnt ends, while Atlanta Falcons tailgaters might serve peach salsa as a nod to Georgia’s prized fruit. In Louisiana, Missy Quigley says, “In addition to Ruffles with French onion dip, we usually do gumbo or jambalaya for LSU games.”
2. Start a Food Fight
This isn’t a food fight in the coleslaw-slinging sense. Rather, have fun with your opponent by feasting on their favorite grub before destroying them on the field. Chuck Dillingham, a devoted Tennessee Titans tailgater, says, “We typically plan our menu around our opponent, in a mocking fashion. For instance, when we played the Oakland Raiders we did a Las Vegas casino buffet setup, poking fun at the fact that the ownership is moving the team out of Oakland and to Vegas.” Team rivalry never tasted so good.
3. Accessorize like a Pro
“Half of my wardrobe is Packers gear,” says Julie Maule, a Green Bay devotee. “But so is everyone else’s in Wisconsin. It’s pretty much a mandatory uniform on Sundays.” If you don’t have a closet full of sports apparel, like Maule, stick to simple accessories and swap them out week to week to keep your look fresh at the parking lot. Her mom, Marcia Maule, says, “We have boas, necklaces, earrings, socks, hats and mittens—items for all seasons.”
4. Don’t Forget: Winter Is Coming
Southern fans may never have to tackle tailgating’s toughest opponent—the weather. But folks up north know all too well the challenge of staying festive when the temps are freezing. First things first: Make your signature cocktail a hot one. Spike hot cocoa, sip mulled red wine, or go for hard apple cider. As for food, try to serve dishes that can be eaten while wearing gloves. Chili or soup is a good choice since you can still maneuver a spoon with mittens.
5. Nail Your Timing
Figuring out when you’ll need to arrive at the lot to allow enough time for setup, cooking, partying and breakdown—all before kickoff—is a delicate dance. Dillingham says, “For a 12 p.m. game, we’ll get to our tailgating site around 8 a.m. to start setting up.” For his group, that allows enough time to erect two or three popup tents, arrange two 8-foot banquet tables and chairs, and get the grills going. While beer is usually the tailgating beverage of choice, you may want to consider coffee (or this overachieving Cappuccino Punch) for those early-morning meetups.
6. Stay Organized
Attention, tidy tailgaters—these hacks are for you. If you set up a tent or canopy, hang a shoe organizer from a top rail, then fill the pockets with napkins, plastic cups, utensils, bottle openers and other small items you’ll need throughout the party. Also, reuse six-pack holders to keep condiments and sauces in one place. And to minimize spillage, bring cupcake tins and use them as trays for serving shots or glasses of wine.
7. Cut a Rug (and Pack One, Too)
If you roll it out, they will come. New York Giants fan Stephanie Atkins says one of her favorite traditions is unfurling a beat-up old rug in the parking lot to serve as a dance floor. There’s something about a designated boogie zone that really gets people moving.
8. Make It a Family Affair
A large part of tailgating, and sports in general, is tradition, so why not get your whole family involved? Carrie Guenther Bernett, a diehard for the San Francisco 49ers, has tailgated at every NFL stadium in the country, and she got her kids started early. “My daughter’s first tailgate was at 3 weeks old; my son’s was at 6 weeks,” she says. “They’re now 17 and 13.” If you involve your whole crew, parking lot parties can be about quality family time, too.
It’s possible that your tailgate will be such a success that you’ll get totally carried away and lose track of game time—so just be aware. Unless, of course, you’re only there for the parking lot festivities, in which case, we don’t blame you.