Food Safety Tips for the Tailgate & Backyard BBQ
Expert Advice

Image:, Austin Kirk

We’ve all been there. It’s 85 degrees on a sunny Saturday afternoon and sitting there in the hot sun is a container full of potato salad. Looking down the table, the Jell-O mold in the shape of the team helmet is starting to melt. Even worse, flies are starting to swarm around the leftover brats from the grill.  And it’s still a couple of hours before kickoff.

Invariably, the tailgate party reaches critical mass. Guests stop eating your homemade ranch dressing and begin whispering to themselves while sticking to the one bag of potato chips. And then it happens – someone eats something that they probably should not have.

The tailgate party is now one for the memory books, but for all the wrong reasons. You don’t need a food safety certification, but with a little basic preparation and planning, you can stop this scenario from ever happening again.

Everything starts with food temperature.  Raw food can’t get too hot, and cooked food must be maintained at a proper temperature. If these things don’t happen, bacteria can flourish, which can cause food poisoning. Here are a few basic food safety tips to remember:

  • Raw meats such as hamburger or poultry should be stored in a cooler with ice and kept below 40°F.
  • Perishable cooked foods like potato salad or pasta salad should be stored below 40°F as well.
  • The danger zone for these food temperatures is 41°F to 135°F. The danger increases the higher these temperatures rise, and the longer foods stay out at these temperatures.
  • Cooked foods such as hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken or pulled pork should not be left outside without refrigeration for more than two hours. If the outside temperature is above 90°F this time is reduced to one hour.
  • Stews, soups or chilis should be kept above 140°F. An insulated container with a lid can easily maintain these temperatures. However, if these foods can’t be kept above temperature, cool the food to below 40°F in a cooler and then reheat it to above 165°F on site at the tailgate.

When grilling, there are internal temperatures that meats must reach to be considered safe to eat. Whole pieces of beef and pork such as steaks and chops should reach at least 145°F. Ground meats such as hamburger should be brought to 160°F. Poultry products should not be consumed before they reach 165°F. A food thermometer should be included in any tailgater’s list of must-have grilling tools!

Once the tailgate food has been both stored and served at safe temperatures, the next part of food safety to understand is cross contamination. Those hamburger patties may be resting comfortably below 40°F, but if their juice leaks onto the carrot sticks in the cooler, trouble will ensue when your guests chow down on the carrots later. Here are a few steps to easily beat cross contamination:

  • Keep raw meats stored in separate, sealed plastic bags in the cooler.
  • Never place cooked meat on the same plate or tray as raw meat.
  • Bring enough utensils to allow for separate use in cooking and serving.
  • Wash hands frequently. A jug of water should be kept on hand solely for hand washing. An anti-bacterial hand-sanitizer will work perfectly if no water is available.

Prep Area & Utensils Safety Tips

When you first set up, wipe down all food-prep service areas with a good cleaner. It always pays to start with a clean work area.

  1. Cooking Utensils – bring five or six sets of cooking utensils to the tailgate. You need a set for raw food, one for cooked food and a third in case you accidentally drop one. The extra sets can be used for the “aftergate” cookout.
  1. Bring the Kitchen Sink – bring a folding sink, such as the Coleman Folding Double Wash Basin or just a couple of plastic wash basins. Wash utensils with antibacterial soap in one sink and rinse in the other sink. Be sure to bring plenty of water!
  1. Use Antibacterial Dish Soap – use one that kills 99.9% of bacteria on your dishes, utensils and counter surfaces. Scrape and pre-rinse dishes. Soak for at least 30 seconds in soapy water. When your dishwater becomes dirty, change it.
  1. Use Food-Safe Gloves – for food preparation and cooking. Change gloves after handling raw food. Always wear durable powder-free nitrile gloves when handling or prepping food. Unlike vinyl gloves and cloth-based ones, nitrile gloves are more resistant to chemicals and hydration. In addition to keeping your food clean and hygienic, wearing nitrile gloves protects your hands from burns and other injuries that ingredients and food prepping may cause.  
  2. Wash Hands Often – for a good minute with lots of soap and water. Especially important with all the gloves and changing of utensils.
  1. Serving Dishes – have at least two sets for the tailgate grill. One for prep and one for cooked foods. Keep a small plastic wash tub near the grill to toss dirty utensils and serving dishes, then thoroughly clean them later.
  1. Clean & Disinfect – immediately clean up raw spills with disinfectant wipes, then follow up with disinfectant spray and paper towels. Use cutting boards only once and toss in the to-be-cleaned-later bin. Clean and disinfect thermometer probes after every single use.
  1. Storage Coolers – keep the food in one cooler and drinks in another. The last thing you want is “raw chicken ice slushy” in your cooler floating around with your favorite drinks.
  1. Bring Plenty of Water – for drinking, cooking, cleaning and washing hands. Buy five-gallon reusable storage containers or refill used juice, soda bottles or milk jugs from home.

One of the fundamental rules of tailgating is that a little preparation goes a long way. By developing safe food handling practices that are used for every game, tailgaters can ensure that their guests get to enjoy the game.