Perryman Nutrition Column: Keep the Fun in Tailgating–Follow Food Safety Tips

Note to Reporters: The following column is written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.

Tailgate parties and football season are a tradition—especially on a crisp, sunny fall afternoon. Friends and family dressed in team colors arrive at the pregame party to enjoy good food and socializing.

No one expects to top off tailgating fun with a foodborne illness. Be mindful of these four basic food safety steps to ensure the party is win-win for everyone:

  • Bring your own water —with soap and paper towels—for your guests to use to wash their hands onsite, or bring moist towelettes or hand sanitizer.
  • Food prep surfaces must be wiped down with soap and water, cleaning spray or wipes.
  • Store utensils and dishes used to prepare raw meat in their own bag or container. This prevents spreading bacteria to the cooler, your car or other dishes and utensils.

Temperature control:

  • If the outside temperature is below 90 degrees, pre-prepared, perishable food, including take-out food, can be out for up to two hours. If temperature is above 90 degrees, food served outside should be limited to being out for one hour.
  • Keep cold foods cold–40 degrees or lower. Bring at least two insulated coolers to keep food and drinks separate. The drink cooler is likely to be opened more frequently, raising the temperature inside the cooler. A full cooler will maintain a chilled temperature longer so fill empty spaces with more ice.
  • Keep hot foods hot–140 degrees or higher. Foods like sloppy joes, chili and soup can be kept hot in an insulated thermos.
  • Ideally, don’t keep leftovers. If you do, put them in the cooler based on the time guidelines above to keep bacteria from multiplying.
  • You cannot tell if food is contaminated by the look, smell or taste. If in doubt, throw it out!


  • Tightly seal raw meat. Transport it in a separate cooler away from other foods to prevent meat juices from contaminating the rest of the meal.
  •  If you don’t have an extra cooler, double bag meat and place it at the bottom of the cooler. If any raw meat juices leak out, it is less likely to contaminate other foods on top of it in the cooler.
  • Pack foods used together in bags in the cooler to minimize the number of times the cooler is opened.
  • Place packages of foods intended to be eaten raw on top of other foods in the cooler to minimize cross contamination.
  • Transport plates, cups and utensils in a separate, clean bag.


  • Bring a meat thermometer for doneness; do not rely on color. Clean the thermometer after each use so it won’t transfer raw meat juices from one item to another. Follow these guidelines to ensure meat is grilled to a safe internal temperature.

               – 165 degrees—chicken, turkey (whole, pieces or ground), hot dogs and casseroles

               – 160 degrees—ground beef, pork and lamb

               – 145 degrees—beef, pork, and lamb chops and roasts

  • Keep prepared marinade in a separate container for basting cooked meat rather than marinade used for raw meat. Discard any marinade used with raw meat.
  • Serve grilled meats on a clean dish with clean utensils.
  • Though it may seem like a time saver, do not partially cook meat before heading out to the tailgate, then finish cooking it on the grill. Bacteria could multiply during the transport time.

If you plan to feed hungry fans after the game in the vehicle or tailgate area to celebrate your team’s win or while waiting for the parking lot to clear, beware of serving leftovers. Instead, serve non-perishable foods — unless your cooler thermometer registers 40 degrees or below, ensuring foods stored there have been kept at a safe temperature. Pre-packaged and easy to transport portions such as apples, oranges or bananas and separately wrapped sandwiches are easy and don’t need to be prepared on site, reducing the risk of contamination. Dry foods such as crackers and foods high in sugar like cookies also are safe ideas. The most hazardous foods are meat, milk and egg dishes. Also, be cautious with potatoes, gravies and stuffing.

If reheating any previously cooked foods, aim for 165 degrees.

And finally, remember to make garbage bags part of your standard equipment so you leave your tailgating area clean.