Keep food safe for tailgating

September 28, 2005|by LYNN F. LITTLE

By definition, the word "tailgating" describes a picnic served on the tailgate of a vehicle.

It doesn't bring to mind the most sanitary conditions, but a good plan can improve food safety for these picnics.

Arriving several hours before an event means plenty of time for set up and making sure the food is kept safe to eat, and time for clean up, too. Arriving about three hours early will enable you to unpack, set up, fire up the grill and start serving food at least an hour before the start of a game or race.

Hand-washing is the most important step in food safety. Washing can be difficult in a parking lot, but it shouldn't be overlooked. Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizers; moist towelettes or a damp washcloth and soap from home (transported in a resealable food storage bag). Wash often and well before and after handling raw or cooked foods and after other activities.


Be realistic when planning your tailgate menu. To make tailgating easy and to keep food safe, package the perishable foods, such as meats and salads, so they will stay cold and safe during transport and during the tailgate picnic.

Along with your food, four essentials you don't want to do without for tailgating are:

  • Bottled water for drinking, washing hands and cleaning up.

  • Paper towels for use as napkins and cleaning up.

  • Aluminum foil to be used on the grill, to keep food warm and to wrap up leftovers.

  • Trash bags. Trash bags can be used for trash, or for packing dirty dishes, towels or other linens you may bring.

Try to plan quantities so that you will have few perishable foods left over. Buy plenty of ice. Some people even bring a cooler just for ice. You want to keep cold foods cold. In addition to bags of ice cubes, you might want to consider freezing some plastic jugs full of water. This way they can keep things cold, you can use the water for drinking or cleanup, and your cooler won't be flooded from melted ice cubes.

Prepare as much food as you can at home - and keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Foods such as pasta, potato salad or a meat salad can be prepared the day before and chilled before being placed in a cooler. Pack soups, hot chocolate and coffee in large Thermoses. They'll stay steaming for hours.

It's possible to keep sandwich fillings, soups or stews hot in a stockpot on a camp stove or grill. Some slow cookers offer an adapter that can be plugged into a car battery.

Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. Consider multiple coolers an investment. Have one cooler for raw meats; one for such cooked foods as pasta or potato salad, and one for beverages. This will prevent contamination of cans, bottles and foods by any bacteria from raw meat.

Since beverage coolers typically are opened most frequently, it's a good idea to keep beverages separate. Each time a cooler is opened, the temperature inside can change.

Fill your coolers. Temperature remains more constant in a cooler that is full, rather than in one only partially full. If food and ice do not quite fill the cooler, add frozen juice boxes or water bottles that can be used as beverages. You also can add other foods that might be less fragile, such as cut vegetables or utility items like utensils. Transfer chilled foods directly from the refrigerator to a cooler. Remember to secure the cooler lids.

If you plan to take raw hamburgers, steaks or other meat or poultry to grill, transport the raw meats and poultry in disposable food storage bags in your cooler. Pack two sets of utensils for these items - one set of tongs and a turner to use with raw meats and another to use for cooked meats. You also want to bring along a clean platter for serving the cooked meats and poultry. Adding disposable food thermometers can take the guesswork out of cooking. Color alone is not an indicator that ground beef is cooked. The most recent guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate to cook hamburgers and other beef to at least 160 degrees for medium doneness. Cook chicken until the juices run clear and temperatures read 180 degrees for chicken with the bone or 170 degrees for boneless chicken pieces. Pork should be cooked to 160 degrees.

If you plan to pick up a bucket of fried chicken, make it the last stop and place the chicken in the cooler immediately.

Keep coolers out of direct sunlight. Shade them with the car, table or tent or cover them with a blanket.

Keep food in coolers until ready to reheat or serve. Food should not be allowed to sit out for more than two hours. If the outside temperature is 90 degrees or above, that recommendation drops to one hour.

When you are finished eating, pack up any leftovers in clean, re-sealable bags or plastic containers and put in the cooler with ice. If any food has been sitting out for more than two hours, though, toss it. It's probably not safe to eat.

These are general recommendations for food safety. If there is any doubt that food safety might have been compromised, it's best to discard the foods in question.

For more information on food safety, visit www.fight You can call USDA's meat and poultry hotline at

1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or e-mail; or call the Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety Information Hotline: 1-888-SAFEFOOD (1-888-723-3366). Locally, you can call Maryland Cooperative Extension - Washington County Office - at 301-791-1504, for answers to food safety questions.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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