Serious tailgaters are experts at food preparations for a successful party. But when running water and refrigeration aren't available, it is important to be familiar with safe food handling procedures to keep from sidelining your guests with food poisoning.

Tailgating is a 140-year-old American tradition. Approximately 50 million people participate in this social event where food is cooked and served on or around the open tailgate of a vehicle in the parking lot of a sporting event. Tailgating can be more fun than the game itself. Serious tailgaters are experts at food preparations for a successful party. But when running water and refrigeration aren’t available, it is important to be familiar with safe food handling procedures to keep from sidelining your guests with food poisoning.

The first step is to plan ahead. Make sure your coolers are clean and ready to go. Do you have enough coolers for all of the food and beverages? Pack all raw meats and premade dishes in plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. If a food is normally refrigerated in a grocery store, it needs to be on ice. Keep raw meats well-wrapped in tightly sealed containers, and keep them separated from other foods. Place meats in the bottom of the cooler so any leaking juices won’t contaminate the other food. Consider a separate cooler just for raw meats.

When transporting a hot food, such as chili, either keep it at 140 degrees or hotter during transport or chill it before you go and transport it in a cooler. Reheat once you get set up. Have your food prepped and ready to cook so that you are handling the food as little as possible on site. Make hamburger patties in advance, have skewers ready to go, and have meat trimmed and ready to cook. Be sure to pack plenty of paper towels, water for cleaning, hand sanitizer, separate utensils for raw and cooked food, a meat thermometer and containers for leftovers.

When you are setting up, clean any surface that will have contact with food with soap and water or sanitizing wipes. Wash your hands thoroughly before you start cooking and use hand sanitizer. Use separate plates, cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked foods. Remember to wash your hands after touching raw meat and before moving to another task.

Preheat your grill before putting the food on so it won’t take as long to cook. Don’t be tempted to partially grill the food at home and finish it at the tailgate to shorten cooking time because this significantly increases the chance of bacterial contamination. It is fine to cook the food completely at home, pack it on ice for transport, and reheat once you get to the event. The only reliable way to make sure the food you are serving is cooked properly is to use a thermometer. Burgers and brats should be cooked to 160 degrees; steaks or chops to 145 degrees; and chicken, hot dogs and all precooked food to 165 degrees.

Holding food at unsafe temperatures is one of the main causes of foodborne illnesses. Keep hot foods hot — 140 degrees or hotter — and cold foods cold — 40 degrees or colder. A separate empty cooler can be used to keep hot food hot. Cold foods, such as potato salad, can be kept cold by nesting serving dishes in beds of ice. Don’t leave perishable foods out for longer than two hours. If it is hotter than 90 degrees, then the food shouldn’t sit out longer than one hour. This applies to carry-out food as well.

Store leftovers in shallow containers to prevent bacterial growth, and put them on ice. If you are short on cooler space or ice, it’s best to discard the leftovers. Try to bring only the amount of food that will be eaten that day to avoid leftovers altogether. When in doubt, throw it out. 

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.