Remember food safety rules during tailgating season

September 06, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Tailgating parties are synonymous with fall game-day fun. Handling food properly in the stadium parking lot is just as important as handling food safely at home. Don't let safety mistakes spoil your tailgating party.

National statistics indicate that millions of people are sickened by food poisoning each year, and thousands die. Illness can occur within an hour of consuming spoiled food, or it can develop days later, depending on the bacteria present.

Washing your hands before and after handling food is critical. Water might not be readily available, but tailgaters can either bring a jug of water, soap and towels, or brush off surface dirt and use packaged towelettes or a hand sanitizer.

To avoid contamination, use separate coolers or ice chests for beverages, ready-to-eat foods and raw foods that will be cooked.

On a hot day, the temperature inside a cooler typically rises each time a cooler is opened. Since beverage coolers are usually opened most frequently, separating the beverages will help maintain the quality of other party foods.


Fill a cooler or ice chest so that it is half full of ice. Block ice will melt more slowly than cubes, and cubes will melt more slowly than crushed ice. Freezing water bottles is an option, but don't fill the bottles completely, as the water will expand during the freezing process. One advantage to freezing water in a bottle is that, when thawed, the water is chilled and ready to drink.

Use a food thermometer to test the doneness of grilled foods. Hamburgers can be brown on the exterior and still not have reached a safe-to-eat temperature of 160 degrees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking all poultry products, such as chicken breasts, thighs or wings, to 165 degrees.

Food thermometers are easy to use and can be purchased for $10 or less. For more information about choosing and using a food thermometer, go to

If planning to serve an egg casserole before an early game, check the cooked temperature (160 degrees). Preparing an omelet in a bag, a recipe that's recently been shared via the Internet, is not recommended. The eggs might not cook completely, and resealable plastic bags, which are not intended for such cooking purposes, might melt.

Plan the tailgate party menu with game time in mind. If grilling is on tap for a pregame lunch, plan post-game snacks - cookies, fruit, veggies and dip, or a snack mix that does not need to be cooked.

Plan party foods for the number of guests expected to minimize leftovers and food storage before, during and after the game.

Prepare food at home. For example, shape hamburger patties and place them in a disposable plastic container or bag. Remove them from the container to grill and discard the plastic container.

Wrap foods in waterproof, resealable bags or containers and chill them in the refrigerator before putting them in the ice chest or cooler. Chill salads and sides, such as deviled eggs, well before transferring them to an ice chest or cooler. Transfer all the cold foods to ice chests/coolers just before leaving home.

Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. If marinating steaks, chops or chicken for grilling at the stadium, do so in a disposable, resealable plastic bag.

Keep ice chests and coolers in shade; cover with a blanket if no shade is available. Wait to remove salads and sides from ice chests and coolers until ready to eat.

If you are planning to pick up a bucket of chicken or pizza on the way to the stadium, make that the last stop before the stadium to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Shade the serving table, if possible.

Wrap and stow leftovers in the ice chest or cooler, or discard them. If extra hamburgers are cooked, but not eaten, wrap and store them in a cooler for a later meal or snack. If food is left out for two hours or more (one hour or more if the temperature is 90 degrees or above), it should be discarded.

Use disposable paper products, tableware and food containers to minimize cleanup.

Tuck in extra utensils, serving spoons and a roll of paper towels and trash bags. Make a "tailgating kit" with the most used utensils and extra supplies for every game.

Make sure cooking appliances or equipment are shut down and cooling, or otherwise stowed appropriately before going to the game to reduce the risk of fire hazards. Allow enough time for the grill to cool completely before packing it for the trip home and, if using charcoal, dispose of used coals in designated areas.

Illness can ruin a tailgate party and football game quickly. Keep the party simple, yet festive. Eliminate food safety hazards and have fun.

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

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