Photo of five girls tailgating at a Texas A&M football game.

Whether you’re tailgating outside the stadium of your favorite team or setting up in your own backyard, it’s important to be safe and responsible so that you can enjoy the tailgate and big win to the fullest.

Football season has officially kicked off, which means it’s time to break out the grill for some good ole’ fashioned tailgating—an integral, time-honored tradition for the nation’s biggest football fans. Whether you’re tailgating outside the stadium of your favorite team or setting up in your own backyard, it’s important to be safe and responsible so that you can enjoy the tailgate and big win to the fullest.

Faculty members at the Texas A&M Health Science Center offer the following tips for having a healthy, safe and memorable tailgating experience:

1. Eat breakfast before you go

Game day is an exciting, activity–filled day, but that’s no excuse for skipping the most important meal of the day. No matter what time you start tailgating, from the break of dawn or just a few hours before the game, be sure to eat something.

“Even if it’s a light breakfast, like a piece of fruit, having food in your stomach can help you make healthier choices and prevent you from overeating during your tailgate,” said David Leal, nutritionist and health educator at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center.

Eating before the tailgate can have multiple benefits: It can help you control your appetite, so you’re less prone to mindless snacking throughout the day, and it will help you be more responsible if you’re going to be consuming alcoholic beverages.

2. Stay hydrated

One of the most crucial aspects of tailgating is staying hydrated, especially during hot afternoons by a grill, as it is easy to become dehydrated.

If you are the grill master, or decide to pass some time by playing a game of touch football, consider drinking a sports drink to replenish electrolytes. But that’s not an excuse to drink them all day; limit the number of sports drinks you consume and primarily drink water.

Speaking of drinks, if you’re going to drink alcoholic beverages, keep in mind that alcohol is a diuretic so it will cause dehydration faster than normal. “Alcohol suppresses the anti-diuretic hormone in your body, which causes you to go to the bathroom more and inhibits your ability to stay hydrated,” said Manuel Guajardo, R.N., C.D.E., health educator at Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center.

On hotter days, consider forgoing an alcoholic drink for a bottle of water instead. No matter how much water you drink, you will never be fully hydrated while alcohol is in your system, so be sure to limit your consumption.

The easiest way to tell if you should drink more water is to monitor the color of your urine. Bright or dark yellow urine indicates dehydration. Ideally, healthy urine should be a pale yellow or almost clear.

3. Consider healthier snack options

“If you’re normally grilling massive burgers, try reducing the size of the patty to a more portion-appropriate four ounces. This way, the meat will cook through faster and you aren’t consuming more than is appropriate,” suggested Leal. Another tip for reducing the calorie-count of your main dish is to switch out the beef for lean-cut ground turkey.

For snacks, ditch the chips and bring on the veggies. Consider a vegetable tray with a low-fat dip as a tasty, yet healthy, alternative to chips, cookies and other calorie-packing snacks. This way, even if you graze throughout the day, you won’t be wrecking a diet or adding to your waistline. If you like the ideas of vegetables being a more prominent feature of your tailgate, but want to add a little zest, try grilling zucchini or bell peppers for a tasty side-dish.

4. Keep your tailgate food contamination free

Tailgates are all fun and games until somebody gets food poisoning. To make sure your tailgate isn’t rudely interrupted by a bad burger or undercooked meat, take some precautions to avoid cross-contamination and make sure meat is fully cooked.

There are a few must-bring items to add to your packing list, if you’re going to be grilling:

  • Meat thermometer
  • Well-insulated cooler
  • Plenty of ice to keep food and raw meat cold throughout the tailgate
  • Multiple containers, plates and utensils to avoid cross-contamination

As a rule of thumb, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. “The danger zone for bacteria to thrive is between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold foods need to be stored under 40 degrees and hot foods need to be kept at temperatures above 140 degrees,” said Alison Pittman, M.S.N., R.N., C.P.N., assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing.

To ensure your meat is fully cooked, poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, pork should be 160 degrees and beef, lamb or veal should reach 145 degrees before they are considered safe to consume.

“Be sure to follow manufacturer guidelines for thermometers,” Pittman said. “Some may require standing in the meat for a minute in order to get an accurate reading.” The proper temperature-taking technique is to place the thermometer in the largest piece of meat, in the center. “Once the largest patty is fully cooked, then the others should be cooked through as well,” Pittman advised.

Avoid cross-contamination by having separate containers, plates and utensils for raw and cooked meat. This means bringing an additional container for leftovers and having multiple tongs and utensils to handle raw and cooked meat separately. Also, throw out any food that has been sitting around after two hours. If it’s a balmy, 90 degrees outside, that time limit gets bumped up to one hour.

Mom always told you to wash your hands before you eat, and her wisdom still applies to tailgates. If you are in charge of preparing and cooking the food, be sure to wash your hands frequently, especially after handling raw meat. Include plenty of hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes for you and the rest of your party to keep germs at bay.

5. Be responsible and have fun

Before you go tailgating, brush up on your school or stadium’s tailgating guidelines. Make sure your tent follows the regulations set by the hosting area and know where you can properly dispose of your coals.

If you plan on brining alcohol to your tailgate, be sure that you aren’t set up in an alcohol-free zone. Also, be sure that you have an appropriate number of designated drivers for the number of people who will be consuming in your party.

But the most important rule is to have fun and be safe as you cheer on your team to victory!

— Elizabeth Grimm

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