Tailgating: The Ultimate Family Bonding Experience

The temperatures are (hopefully!) dropping and fall is on the way, which can mean only one thing: It’s time to tailgate! With college and professional football underway, as well as all those school-related sports, the time is now to gather up the family and prepare to cheer on your favorite teams.

Tailgating is the perfect party: Friends and family come together to hang out, cook some great food, and watch as their favorite team and/or athlete takes the field. Camaraderie reigns at such events, with everyone rooting for the same thing–that their team wins. Even opposing fans have a good time, good-naturedly ribbing each other on which team is better.

“Tailgating is part of our social fabric now,” says Stephen Linn, author of the popular “The Ultimate Tailgater” books. “It’s all about having fun with friends and making new ones.”

So how do you create a tailgating party that everyone can enjoy? It all comes down to planning. First, Linn recommends using a checklist to organize your supplies. “You don’t want to forget anything,” he says. “Put everything on it, even the obvious stuff.” Linn says he knows of some tailgaters who printed their list up, laminated it and attached it to their cooler. They check every item off with a dry-erase marker as they pack it, and, when they return home, they wipe off the list so they can use it again the next week.

Second, prepare as much as possible ahead of time, Linn says. “You’re there to enjoy yourself and everyone around you,” he says. Not only will this allow you to spend more time taking part in the action, but it also will save on the amount of stuff you have to bring to the site.

Third, think beyond the usual hamburgers and hot dogs when choosing your meals. “People are cooking more elaborately,” Linn says. Some fans are bringing tailgating grills that attach to their vehicles, while others haul their full-sized grills to the venue.

Menu items range from barbecue briskets, chili and gumbo to grilled salmon and oysters and fried turkeys. Side dishes include grilled corn on the cob, pasta salads, baked beans, antipasto platters and roasted potatoes (also cooked on the grill). Simply put, if you can prepare it ahead of time or cook it on the grill, then it’s suitable for tailgating.

However, do not forget about food safety. “Keep raw meats and prepared foods separate,” Linn says. “Separate knives and tools for each.” (For more on grilling tips, see “Top Grilling Tips.”)

Fourth, don those team colors, and keep things friendly. Remember, this is a family atmosphere so practice good sportsmanship when talking with fans from the opposing team.

Linn also suggests bringing a first-aid kit (for sunburns, scrapes and unexpected grilling accidents), jumper cables and extra ice. “You can never have enough ice,” Linn says.

To find a good tailgating spot, be prepared to get to the venue early. “We start at 7 a.m.,” says Ray Jacques of Metairie, La., who has been tailgating at New Orleans Saints and Louisiana State University games since 1972. While that may sound early, you’d be surprised at how crowded many venues are before 9 a.m. For example, when Jacques arrives with his family and friends, you’re talking about 40 people in the group.

Like Jacques and his crew, many tailgaters see this as an all-day event. “We set up a big screen TV and watch other college games during the day,” Jacques says. “We rarely even go into the stadium. You can’t party in the stadium.”

When Jacques says “party,” think of a home party on location. In addition to the big screen TV, his group also sets up a smaller TV for the kids to watch movies or cartoons, breaks out the grills and turkey fryers for preparing meals, and puts up the LSU-themed canopies and chairs. They also set up games such as horseshoes or a sandbag toss for the kids to enjoy.

Yes, kids of all ages are a big part of the tailgating experience. “I’ve been in sports all my life, and my kids grew up around it,” Jacques says. But children don’t have to be tag-a-longs at tailgating parties. Instead, they can be an integral part of putting together a great event.

“Involve the kids in planning,” Linn says. “Have them load music on the iPod. They can help bake brownies and make banners. Let them help decorate on site. And remember to thank them for their efforts.” By allowing your children to participate, they can feel ownership for the party and take pride in their work.

Other ways to involve kids is by having them help with food preparation, Linn says. Prepare such finger-friendly morsels as kabobs, corn dogs, pizza and cupcakes. Another fun treat? Hershey’s S’mores! Children not only can enjoy these indulgent goodies, they also can help put them together. Simply craft your s’more together, wrap in foil wrappers, and pop them on the grill for one to two minutes per side.

Keep in mind, though, that the tailgating atmosphere already is pumped up. Therefore, limit soft drinks and other sugary drinks as well as sweet treats for children. Instead, bring plenty of water to keep them hydrated.

While parents can spend hours chatting with friends and relaxing in the shade, children tend to get bored. Keep them entertained with travel games, fun sports trivia and scavenger hunts (with adults or older kids), Linn suggests. Make your scavenger fun and unique by searching for items like someone wearing a cap with the opposing team’s logo, a football-shaped cake or someone wearing the jersey of the team quarterback.

Of course, a lot of children are not cut out for all-day parties. “You know your kids,” Linn says. “Plan around their limits. Have a backup plan.” For instance, he says, if they start to get bored, take a walk around the parking lot and check out the other tailgating decorations. Or, if they just can’t handle anymore, be prepared to leave early.

Overall, when planning your tailgating event, strive for a party that appeals to your entire group. Enlist their help in the process, and you’re sure to end up with something fun for everyone. “Come out, and have a good time,” Jacques says. “That’s the point.”




  1. Wow! Reading this makes me want to go tailgate. I’ve never been to a tailgating party before. I would love to experience tailgating.

  2. I’ve never gone tailgating, but it sounds like so much fun and you make a great point on how it can be a bonding experience! I would love to go to a tailgating party sometime soon.

  3. Guess what….I have never tailgated before or gone to a football game. Shame on me! But hoping to attend both soon.

  4. Tailgating is one of those events that you have to experience. It’s so festive with lots of friends and GOOD FOOD. I love tailgating for the food experience versus the sports.

  5. We normally watch football from home, but tailgating looks like so much fun!

  6. I have yet to go tailgating. My husband and older kids have bee but I opted to stay home with the little kids.

    • Karon Warren says:

      It is hard with little kids, but I think keeping the focus on family-friendly entertainment is a great way to include them.

  7. I haven’t tailgated since college, but this post makes me want to change that! Great ideas and great pics, too.

  8. i have a confession: I haven’t been to a football game since I was in highschool! but i have always wanted to go tailgaiting. I want to go and share in the moment with family and introduce my little one to my College team :)

    • Karon Warren says:

      I know what you mean! We finally took our kids to a game for the first time about two years ago, and they had a blast. Hoping to make it to a game this year, too.

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