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How to Safely Pack Your Cooler for Tailgating

Photo: Getty Images

‘Tis the season for football, tailgating, and cheering on your alma mater. Like any outdoor event, tailgating requires preparation to make sure your cooler is packed properly and food can be safely cooked outside with the help of minimal appliances. From the most extravagant set-ups to the small portable grill next to a flat-bed truck, every successful tailgate must have an organized cooler that can keep food fresh and drinks cold. Follow this guide to keep your tailgate simple, efficient, and safe against any outdoor elements. 

Whether the sun is beating down or the weather has begun to cool, tailgating can be a hit or miss temperature wise. However, with just minimal preparation, we have you covered for a foolproof tailgate. Because you are taking food out of the kitchen, you shouldn’t pack certain items, but we are sharing the necessary precautionary steps to keep your food fresh. Follow this guide for a no-risk day of tailgating that will keep your cooler organized, beer cold, and food ready to enjoy.

Photo: Charles Masters & Randy Mayor

General Guidelines:

  • Chill everything beforehand. Put everything in the fridge a day before packing your cooler to ensure it will be cold when you pack things up. If anything can be frozen, keep it in the freezer until right before you pack it.
  • If you have two coolers, save one for drinks and one for food. You and your guests will be reaching into the cooler for drinks regularly, and you do not want the warm air to keep hitting the food and melting the ice. You can always buy separate bags of ice and a plastic container to keep the drinks out in the open.
  • Use a thicker cooler. The thicker the cooler, the more insulated your food and drinks will be. If your cooler does not fill to the top with your items, lay a towel on the top to keep the food covered; less air means less room for the temperature to rise.
  • Use ice packs for food and bags of ice for drinks. The ice packs will stay colder and the ice cubes for the drinks can easily be poured out at the end of the day. If there is room in your cooler with food, you can lay a bag of ice on top. Just make sure your cooler has the ability to drain on the bottom once the ice melts.
  • Stack ice. Layer your food with ice packs in between each level to ensure everything stays cold.
  • Store your cooler in a cool space at home. This will make sure from the get-go you are putting your perishable food somewhere safe. *Also means try to keep your cooler in the shade at the tailgate*
Photos: Charles Masters & Randy Mayor

How to Pack Your Cooler:

Bottom Level:

  • Ice Packs
  • Drinks - Freeze water bottles ahead of time to act as ice packs. Then you can drink them once they thaw before the game.
  • Raw Meat - If you are grilling meat, make sure to pack it on ice in a sturdy, sealed plastic bag.

Middle Level:

  • Any fully cooked meat products, such as deli meat
  • Sauces or dressings that need to stay cold
  • Any dairy products. Cheese is okay, but avoid mayo and other dips that would not do well in the sun and heat.

Top Level:

  • Any fresh fruit and vegetables

Food Safety Tips:

  • Pack extra plates and serving utensils if you are grilling raw meat to avoid possible contamination. Pack cleaning supplies to quickly clean off any utensils and plates that touched raw meat. Store them in zip-top plastic bags so juices and bacteria can't spread as easily.
  • Use disposable plates, cups and silverware for an easy clean-up. This also means bringing extra trash bags. Look for eco-friendly and biodegradable options to reduce your trash footprint.
  • Plan ahead to make sure you won’t have leftovers. You do not want to have food sitting in your car during the game, even if it is in a cooler. Perishable food must be consumed within 2 hours of removing it from the fridge.
  • Make sure your portable grill can get hot enough to properly cook any raw meat. Pack a food thermometer to double-check that the proper temperature has been reached before serving your guests.
  • Avoid dairy products and dips. These items will foster bacteria growth if they sit out too long, especially in the sun. You’ll also save on calories if you stick to salsas and vinaigrettes.
  • Keep hot food hot. If you are bringing chili or anything in the slow-cooker, keep it in that container or a thermos. Plan to eat anything prepared ahead of time within 2 hours of arriving at the tailgate—1 hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.

No one wants to walk away from a football weekend with a loss and food poisoning. Keep your family and your tailgating guests healthy and happy by following these simple strategies.