Tailgate Food Must-Haves

Last updated on June 16th, 2020

Time to Read: 11 minutes

Part of the fun of the big game is the journey and the tailgating party getting there. And that wouldn’t be the same without some good grub. For this article, we intend to cover the staples of tailgate food. Most tailgates are not complete without at least something on this list.

Many of these are great for cooking on-site if you have a grill, a portable stove, and some sort of fuel. If cooking on the spot isn’t your thing, load up your coolers or insulated bags for ready-made food or food that you prepare in advance. We’ll cover tried and true tailgate food options for you here.

Barbecue

ribs brisket pulled pork

Bring a portable grill with you and fire it up. It is pretty easy to make barbecue in an open space if you have a handy portable grill. What you do typically need, however, is a lot of time. If you don’t have a lot of time to tailgate, BBQ is best prepared in advance and reheated on your big day. As far as meat or style, that can be a contentious and personal choice, so we’ll leave it up to you to make that decision.

While the amounts can vary, try making a truly legendary barbecue sauce with ketchup, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, honey, a spoon of vinegar, a bit of instant coffee, liquid smoke, and if you’d like, a bit of diced dried chilis. Marinate the brisket, pork, or chicken in the sauce for a few hours before barbecuing and baste before turning and after turning. Or, if the marinade and basting isn’t your style, just have the sauce on the side for your friends to use as they please.

Nachos

nachos

Sometimes it’s just not a tailgate without nachos. The best thing about nachos is that they are incredibly versatile and can be served hot and cold. The sky’s the limit when it comes to how to top them. You can try several different varieties depending on what other kinds of food you have and what heating devices are available for melting cheese or cooking meat.

Cheese Jalapeno Nachos

Arrange nachos in a plate and make a cheese sauce out of cheddar, and if you’d like, other types of cheeses, such as American or mozzarella. Add some milk and just a little bit of liquid. Pour the cheese sauce over plates of nachos and stop with jalapeno peppers. For an extra kick, use fresh rather than canned jalapenos. For a smoky-hot flavor, replace jalapenos with chipotle peppers and add them directly into the cheese sauce.

Everything Nachos

Make this dish with anything you would ever think of putting on nachos. This is a real crowd-pleaser, so arrange a huge plate with nachos. Use a high-quality variety with thicker chips to support all of those fantastic toppings. Fry up some ground beef with taco seasoning. Place it over the nachos. Make guacamole by mashing an avocado and adding oil and lemon. Add sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, black olives, jalapeno or chipotle peppers, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, chopped green onion, red onion rings, and some salsa.

Chili

chili

There are as many types of chili as there are chili lovers. There is chili that is mainly beef, chili that is mainly bean, vegetarian chili, black bean chili, chili for those who like as much spice as the law will allow, and others who prefer milder versions. You can make chili before the tailgate and heat it up on the grill or in a slow cooker for a long time and slow cook your chili. Here are some varieties of this heart-warming comfort food. Try serving chili with cornbread or tortillas. Chili is an excellent tailgate food on a cold day.

Hot Beefy Chili

Your amounts will vary according to the number of people you need to feed, but use two-thirds meat and one-third kidney beans. If you prefer, you can use pinto beans. Brown the ground beef with some diced onion with a bit of oil to keep it from sticking. Add garlic and some diced chili pepper. Add the beans after draining the water. Add a large can of diced tomatoes. Sprinkle in a spoon of diced chili pepper, a dash of pepper, and some salt. Add water until the level inside the pot reaches two-thirds of the way to the top. This is best made in a slow cooker, but you can also cook it on low heat for an hour or two.

Black bean chili 

Brown turkey with onion, chili powder, and garlic powder. Add black beans, drained. Add a can of crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle in as much spice as you like, oregano, and white pepper. Add water until the contents are two-thirds full and cook on in a slow cooker for 4 hours or on low heat for one to two hours.

Vegetarian Chili

Use the above recipes for beefy or black bean chili, but instead of the beef or the turkey, saute bell pepper, zucchini, carrots, and celery with onions before adding the beans and chopped tomato.

Tacos and Burritos

tacos

Like nachos and chili, tacos and burritos are popular for tailgate food because of the ease of preparation and because a lot of these foods just scream “tailgating.” Tacos are the ultimate assemble-your-own dish, and can also be a convenient way for a number of smaller groups of people to come together and share a meal. Spread out some ingredients into individual bowls that can be refilled.

Try chopped tomatoes, onions, olives, ground beef cooked with taco seasoning, spicy pinto beans, fried tofu for vegetarians, guacamole, sour cream, nacho cheese, and salsa. For burritos, have the fixings, like the refried beans, cheese, and salsa, set out with the taco fillings. Place taco shells, tostada shells, wheat tortillas, and corn tortillas out at one end and let people assemble their own tacos.

If you have some taco shells break, or simply have some nacho chips, you can take the leftover taco fillings and make taco salads. Just add some bowls of filling into a big bowl of lettuce, toss and serve.

Hot and Cold Sandwiches

sandwiches

If you can put it in a bun or between two slices of bread, you have a sandwich, but there are some types of sandwiches that are ideal as tailgate food. Basically, anything that is hearty, filling, and preferably meat-oriented is great for these occasions. Favorites include all kinds of deli sandwiches or hot sandwiches with meat and melted cheese. Try some of these sandwiches for your next big game.

Deli sandwiches are convenient because they can be served hot or cold with a pickle on the side. Pastrami, corned beef, or turkey can be fantastic on a roll with whatever fillings you like best. Add some sauerkraut for some extra kick. Although these deli sandwiches are just fine cold, they are often better hot on toasted bread, so if you can heat things up, go for it.

Reuben

This sandwich has the best of a traditional deli with a few extras like swiss cheese and Russian dressing. For best results, use rye bread. Use butter on the outside of the rye bread slices and stack the inside with corned beef, sauerkraut (pat it dry first with a paper towel), swiss cheese, and top with Russian dressing. Place the other rye bread slice with the buttered side outside on top and fry the sandwich in a pan.

Philly Cheesesteak

Saute red and green peppers with onions. Fry some minute steaks until brown. Top with slices of provolone cheese until melted. Serve inside a hoagie bun.

Ham and Cheese Sandwich

Butter slices of white bread on the outside. Put ham slices and slices of cheddar cheese inside. Put the other slice of bread on top, buttered side out. Fry in a skillet until the outside of the bread is golden brown.

Sides

Stuffed Baked Potatoes

baked potatoes

Baked potatoes are good anytime, but they are especially warm, convenient, and inviting for tailgate food. If you are taking your grill along, try wrapping your potatoes in foil during your barbecue until they are done on the inside. Then unwrap your potatoes and place them briefly on the grill to make the skin nice and crisp. For the best baked potatoes, use Idaho potatoes, because when they are baked, they have a nice thick outside layer and can be fluffed with a fork on the inside.

Sometimes a potato with creamy butter, salt, and pepper is a simple, comforting way to satisfy your hunger and taste buds. Try opening the potato and topping it with baked beans and cheese, broccoli and cheddar and mushroom and swiss. Try adding stuffings to a potato that you would for a sandwich, such as corned beef and sauerkraut, ham and cheese, pesto, and mozzarella. Anything you can imagine putting in a potato can be a great addition to your baked potato.

Salads

salad

Meat and cheese-laden dishes are terrific choices for tailgate food, and salads make the ideal side dish. In addition, there may be some light eaters among the tailgating crowd and people who are vegetarian or who are watching their weight. These salads are (mostly) lighter options, but they are not light on flavor.

Tossed Salad

Is what it sounds like. A simple tossed salad can be a great addition to any meal. Try iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and cucumbers with Italian dressing or an olive oil and lemon sauce. Another good salad idea includes spinach leaves, blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, and a bacon vinaigrette.

Pasta salad

This is another versatile favorite. Try a tri-colored spiral pasta, pesto, feta cheese chunks, and black olives. Vary any element of this and add cucumbers, tomatoes, or for something different, broccoli and asparagus spears.

Potato Salad 

As with pasta salad, there are many varieties of this picnic dish. Try white potatoes cubed with diced onions, celery, chopped hard-boiled egg, and stir in plenty of mustard and mayonnaise. You could also go for sweet German-style potato salad, with mini-red russet potatoes halved. Add parsley and bacon. Make a dressing from apple cider vinegar, dijon mustard, black peppercorns, and garlic. Drizzle over the potatoes. This salad can be served warm or cold.

Beverages

Drinking is probably as important as eating at your tailgating party. Be sure to have large coolers with plenty of ice. You may also want to set up a small bar with the bare essentials for mixing fabulous cocktails. In addition to the standard cocktails, and of course, beer, here are some fun drinks to try.

jello shots

Team Spirit Vodka Jello

Make vodka jello in the colors of your team. Simply arrange the jello sections in layers in a plastic cup to show your team spirit.

Bloody Mary in a Cucumber

Sometimes it isn’t the drink that has to be creative, but the way it is served. Hollow out some cucumbers in the shape of small shot glasses and pour in some spicy, cold bloody Mary into it. After you drink the shot, you can eat the shot glass!

“Notre Dame” Lemonade

This simple and satisfying cocktail was created in honor of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. Simply mix Jameson whiskey with ice-cold lemonade and serve in a large pitcher, because people will ask for refills. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Notre Dame fan to indulge or serve this at your tailgate.

Desserts

cookies

The best way to end a fantastic meal is with the perfect dessert. You can bring some favorite baked goods from home, such as apple or peach cobbler and fruit pies. Heat them up and top each slice with a dollop of ice cream. Pumpkin pie is also a favorite, especially for autumn Homecoming games. Make sure you remember to bring some whipped cream. 

For the mornings, try some leftover desserts, such as pies and cakes, with a simple fruit salad made of apples, bananas, or a melon salad with balls of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew.

Brownies and cookies are always a crowd-pleaser. You can opt for old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies or special kinds of brownies, such as fudge mint, or peanut butter and chocolate brownies. Taking a big cheesecake along with you in the cooler is sure to make you popular. Any pie, cake, cookie, or brownie combination will do at a tailgate, so make sure your baked favorites are handy.

Tailgate food when you’re in a hurry….or afraid to cook

pizza box

You can make plenty of these foods ahead of time and pack them in a cooler, and many can be assembled at your tailgate. In a pinch, you can pick up some items for local restaurants, and remember, there is always pizza. If you do intend to lean on a local restaurant, get the details worked out far in advance with that restaurant. The local places are swamped on gameday, and if you don’t get your order in early enough, you might be out of when you reach out to them.

When you pack your car with your tailgate food, don’t forget all of the supplies and utensils you’ll need to enjoy. Different foods will need different tools, so plan accordingly. You don’t want to bring salad to your tailgate only to realize that you left your forks at home!