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4 Tips for Food Safety at Your Tailgate

By Ms. Susan M. Collins-Smith, MSU Extension Service

It’s tailgating season! That means football, food, and fun. But if you’re not careful, it could also mean a round of food poisoning for everybody.

Food safety when cooking and serving food at a tailgate is a lot like serving food at home. The same basic rules apply. You just need a little more planning and a few extra supplies.


Keep hands and surfaces clean

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after preparing food.

  • No running water where you are tailgating? No problem. It’s easy to set up a handwashing station. Here’s how:

  • Use a table or another flat, elevated surface to set up a water jug with a spigot faucet, hand soap, and paper towels. Bring a bucket to catch the excess water from the jug. Clean the water jug before using it by following these instructions:

  1. Sanitize the jug with two tablespoons of unscented bleach in one gallon of water and slosh all surfaces.

  2. Let this solution stand for five minutes, and then drain. Do not rinse.

  3. Fill the container with appropriate drinking water for handwashing.

Washing hands with soap and water is best, but hand sanitizer and moist wipes work when you don’t have access to running water.

Keep foods at the proper temperature

  • Keep cold items at or below 40 degrees.

  • Keep hot items at or above 140 degrees. Anything in between is called the danger zone where most bacteria that cause food-borne illness grow and thrive.

  • Pack frozen and cold foods in the cooler just before you leave the house.

  • Place raw meats in sealed bags or containers at the bottom of the cooler.

  • Use plenty of ice or ice packs to completely fill the cooler.

  • Transport the cooler inside the vehicle where it is temperature controlled.

  • Use a separate cooler for drinks because it will be opened frequently.

  • Read our blog post about How to Keep Food Safe in a Cooler for more helpful tips.

  • Use an ice bath to keep cold foods cool and chafing dishes or slow cookers to keep hot foods warm. Otherwise, keep cold foods in the cooler until it’s time to serve them.

  • Throw out any leftovers kept at room temperature after two hours. If the temperature that day is above 90 degrees, throw out leftovers after one hour.

Prevent cross-contamination

  • Pack enough utensils and serving dishes. You should have one set of utensils and serving dishes for raw meats and seafood specifically. Use a different, clean set for cooked items.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching raw meat or seafood. If your tailgate setup is buffet style, bring enough utensils for each dish. Have multiple food thermometers on hand or clean yours after each use. Discard any marinade used on raw meat or seafood.

Use the right meat thermometer

  • Instant-read dial or digital thermometers are best for tailgating. Calibrate the thermometer periodically to ensure it is accurate.

  • Check internal temperature by inserting the thermometer into the thickest area of the item.

Safe Internal Temperatures

  • All poultry: 165oF

  • Ground meats (beef, pork, lamb, veal): 160oF

  • Hot dogs, bratwursts, sausages, burgers: 160oF

  • Beef, pork, lamb, and veal (steaks, chops, roasts): 145oF as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. You may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures based on personal preference.

Natasha goes over some food safety dos and don’ts for your next tailgate party in this Facebook Live video post.

Extension publication 3328, “Tailgating Food Safety,” will help you plan for and have a tasty and food-safe tailgate.

For more Game Day Food Safety Tips and How to Grill Safely, head over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service website has more specific information about various food safety topics.

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