Scoring a Winning Tailgate Party

healthy-tailgate-foodWith fall comes cooling air, leaves turning colors, and stadiums across the country filling up with football fans.  It also means the ever popular tailgate party before and sometimes after the game.  You can think of tailgating just like a coach and team approaches a football game.

Know your opponent:  The opponent at your tailgate event is harmful microbes.  Under the right conditions, bacteria multiply to levels that can cause us to become ill.  Symptoms may include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and in severe cases can result in hospitalization and even death.  Also, viruses can transfer from a human to food by hands that have not been properly washed after using the toilet.

Kick off:  Planning is the key to a successful tailgate kick off.  Think about your menu.  Do you have:

  • enough coolers with lots of ice or cold packs?
  • thermometers to know that your cold food is held at 40°F or below and meat thermometer to assure that those burgers and brats is cook sufficiently to kill any harmful bacteria?
  • lots of clean or disposable utensils for preparing and serving the foods?
  • a way for people to wash their hands if facilities are not close by?

First down:  To make a first down at your tailgate party, you need to follow food safety rules of Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. Just like in football, you may encounter penalties before you score a touchdown.  Some of these penalties include:

False start: Keeping food at a safe temperature between home,  store or restaurant, and the tailgate location helps prevent foodborne illness. Carry cold perishable food like raw hamburger patties, sausages, and chicken in an insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice, frozen gel packs, or containers of ice.  Place an appliance thermometer in the cooler so you can check to be sure the food stays at 40°F or below.

If bringing hot home prepared or take-out food, eat it within 2 hours of preparation or purchase (1 hour if the temperature is above 90°F). To keep food like soup, chili, or stew hot, use an insulated container. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. If you keep the insulated container closed, the food should stay hot (140°F or above) for several hours.  If you can’t keep hot food hot during the drive to your tailgate, plan ahead and chill the food in the refrigerator before packing it in a cooler. Reheat the food to 165°F as measured with a food thermometer.

Encroachment:  Make sure that raw meat, poultry and fish are separated from ready-to-eat foods.  Separate coolers would be best, but if that is not possible, make sure each item is packaged in such a way that juices from the raw food contaminate the food that will not be heated before eating.

Holding:  “Holding” may be one of the most likely offenses your referee encounters during long football games. Never hold perishable foods out for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if the temperature is above 90°F. Put leftovers back in the cooler promptly to block offensive bacteria from multiplying. When in doubt, throw it out of the game—and your tailgate.

Off sides:  When packing the cooler for an outing, be sure raw meat and poultry are wrapped securely to prevent their juices from cross-contaminating ready-to-eat food.  Perishable cooked food such as luncheon meat, cooked meat, chicken, and potato or pasta salads must be kept refrigerator cold, too.  Also, keep cut up raw veggies and fruits on ice.

Illegal use of hands:  Unclean hands are one of the biggest culprits for spreading bacteria and viruses, and finger foods are especially vulnerable. Chefs and guests should wash their hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. If running water is located far away from your tailgate, have sanitizing wipes available.

False start:  Although you may think partially cooking foods before packing them up for the game will speed up things, you are setting yourself up for delays later. Partially cooking meat or poultry ahead of time should only be done if the food goes immediately from the microwave or stove to the hot grill. Partial cooking of food without cooking it to a safe temperature allows harmful bacteria to survive and multiply. Once meat or poultry starts cooking, continue cooking until it reaches a safe temperature as determined with a food thermometer.

Winning touchdown:

To score that winning touchdown, you need to follow your game plan of knowing your opponents and using basic food safety rules of

  • Clean: Wash hands thoroughly using soap and water.  If not possible, use wet, disposable cloths and hand sanitizer.
  • Separate.  Don’t cross-contaminate, which is how bacteria or viruses can be spread from one food or dirty hands to food.
  • Cook: Make sure the internal temperate is reached by using a meat thermometer.  Cook to the safe internal temperature reached (beef, pork, lamb, fish:  145°F; burgers: 160°F; poultry: 165°F) Reheat foods such as soups, stews or chili to 165°F or until bubbling.
  • Chill: Transport and keep foods on ice because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria.  Foods should be kept at 40F or below.

End zone: Getting into the end zone the most means a win.  Have a winning tailgate party by following the directions above.

If you are celebrating the teams win or suffering the agony of defeat after the game, make sure any foods you consume are safe.  If in doubt about the safety of any food, throw it out.

At your next tailgate gathering, have fun and be safe with your food.