Tailgating Food Safety

Tailgating is a popular weekend activity, especially during football season. Spending time with friends and family while eating good food is a fun way to share in team spirit before a game, but you do not want food poisoning to ruin the fun.

Whether you bring food from home, a store, or cook onsite, following the four basic precautions for food safety will let everyone enjoy the rest of the day: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

Keep It Clean

Sometimes tailgating sites do not have access to properly maintained bathroom facilities, which can make pre- and post-cookout cleaning difficult.

If you know you cannot access potable water on site, pack your own. Be sure to bring enough for cleaning and wiping down dishes, tables, utensils, or any other item or surface involved in food preparation.

Also pack paper towels or cloths and travel soap for cleaning and washing hands and utensils.

Soap and water are the most effective way to remove germs and grime from your hands. Use travel soap and potable water (preferably in an easy to pour container) to wash your hands onsite.

Moist towelettes or hand sanitizer can do in a pinch, but remember that sanitizers are not effective if your hands are visibly dirty.

Keep Foods Separated

Ready-to-eat foods bought from stores will most likely already be packaged.  Make sure any food you prepared beforehand at home is properly wrapped or sealed. Keep items that require cooking away from ready-to-eat foods to prevent contamination. This especially includes raw meats.

Beware of leaky zipper bags or containers; not only will they make a mess, but they can also cause cross-contamination.

Cook Thoroughly

When you grill, make sure all your foods are cooked to the right temperature (ºF):

  • Ground beef or pork (including sausages): 160ºF
  • Ground turkey or chicken (including sausages): 165ºF
  • Poultry (chicken and turkey): 165ºF
  • Beef: 145ºF, let rest for 3 minutes
  • Leftovers and hot dogs: 165ºF

These temperatures refer to the internal temperatures of the cooked meat. Color is not a dependable indicator to determine if meat is properly cooked, so be sure to pack a food thermometer.

Meats and other cooked foods need to be kept hot (140ºF) after cooking.

Chill and Store Properly

All perishable foods you bring need to be kept cold (below 40ºF). Keep them in insulated coolers with enough ice, frozen gel packs, or other cold source. Keep your drinks in a different cooler so that the one with perishable foods will not be constantly opened and closed.

Bacteria grow rapidly when temperatures are between 40ºF and 140ºF. If you cannot keep foods out of this temperature zone at your tailgate, make sure you eat the food within two hours. After two hours, it needs to be refrigerated to prevent harmful bacteria growth. If the outdoor temperature is above 90ºF, you will need to eat any prepared and perishable foods within one hour.

The best way to prevent leftovers and storage issues is to plan ahead and make sure you bring only the amount of food that will be eaten. Remember that you cannot tell if harmful bacteria are present on foods just by looking or smelling—if in doubt, throw it out!

For questions about food safety and other issues, contact your local Extension agent.

Adapted and excerpted from:

A. Simonne, Food Safety and Tailgating (FAR8712), Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences (03/2012).

Picnic Safety,” Iowa State University Extension (Accessed 09/2015).

Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (Accessed 09/2015).