From college to the pros, Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest times of the football season. Here are some tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) on how to safely cook and serve food at your tailgate party.


Bring the right tools

Make sure to game plan and bring all the proper cooking and cleaning supplies.

  • Clean utensils for preparing and serving cooked food
  • A food thermometer, vital for knowing that your meat and poultry reaches a high enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria.
  • An insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice, frozen gel packs, or containers of ice to carry cold perishable food like raw hamburger patties, sausages, and chicken
  • Bring water for cleaning if none will be available at the site
  • Pack clean, wet, disposable cloths or moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces.
First quarter

Keep cold food cold and hot food hot

Keeping food at a safe temperature between home, a store or restaurant, and the tailgate location helps prevent foodborne illness.

  • Place an appliance thermometer in the cooler so you can check to be sure the food stays at 40 °F or below.
  • When packing the cooler for an outing, be sure raw meat and poultry are wrapped securely to prevent their juices from cross-contaminating ready-to-eat food.
  • Perishable cooked food such as luncheon meat, cooked meat, chicken, and potato or pasta salads must be kept refrigerator cold, too.
  • If bringing hot take-out food, eat it within 2 hours of purchase (1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F).
  • To keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot, use an insulated container. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. If you keep the insulated container closed, the food should stay hot (140 °F or above) for several hours.
  • If you can’t keep hot food hot during the drive to your tailgate, plan ahead and chill the food in the refrigerator before packing it in a cooler. Reheat the food to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Transport marinated meat and any reserved marinade in a cooler, and keep it cold until grilling it.
Second quarter

Safely Marinate

Have backup marinade that hasn’t touched raw meat or poultry.

  • Always marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • If some of the marinade is to be used for basting during smoking or as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion of the marinade. Don’t put raw meat and poultry in it.
  • Don’t reuse the marinade from raw meat or poultry on cooked food unless it’s boiled first to destroy any harmful bacteria.
  • Transport marinated meat and any reserved marinade in a cooler, and keep it cold until grilling it.
Third quarter

Cook to the right temperature

Proper cooking is the best defense against bacteria.

  • Partially cooking meat or poultry ahead of time should only be done if the food goes immediately from the microwave or stove to the hot grill.
  • Partial cooking of food without cooking it to a safe temperature allows harmful bacteria to survive and multiply.
  • Once meat or poultry starts cooking, continue cooking until it reaches a safe temperature as determined with a food thermometer.
  • Cook food to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria.
  • Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside, but that does not mean they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature.

Safe internal temperatures:

  • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160°F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
  • For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
  • Cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer.
Fourth quarter

Avoid cross-contamination

Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meat or poultry touch ready-to-eat foods, like vegetables, fruits, or cooked food.

  • When taking food off the grill, use a clean platter.
  • Don’t put cooked food on the same platter that held raw meat or poultry. Any harmful bacteria present in the raw meat juices could contaminate safely cooked food.
  • In hot weather (above 90 °F), food should never sit out for more than 1 hour.

Saving the leftovers

Make sure you take the time to properly handle the food that isn’t eaten.

  • Holding food at an unsafe temperature is a prime cause of foodborne illness.
  • Store perishable food in the cooler except for brief times when serving.
  • Cook only the amount of food that will be eaten to avoid the challenge of keeping leftovers at a safe temperature.
  • Discard any leftovers that are not ice cold (40 °F or below) after the game.
  •  Food should not be left out of the cooler or off the grill more than 2 hours (1 hour when the outside temperature is above 90 °F)

If you have a question about meat, poultry, or egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll free at 1-888-674-6854. The hotline is open year-round Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)