Webster’s defines “tailgate” as “a board or gate at the rear of a vehicle that can be removed or let down (as for loading),” or as “a jazz trombone style marked by much use of slides to and from long sustained tones.”
Webster’s, clearly, does not know how to get down. Tailgating, as you and I know, is the semi-sacred art of eating and drinking as much as humanly possible before a sporting event, commonly in the parking lot outside a stadium. Although we can’t gather for college football games right now to shotgun beers and grill hot dogs, we can still enjoy the pleasures of our before-game rituals at home.
We know, no matter what, there’s going to be booze. But choosing the perfect tailgate food is not as simple. You want the best, right? Well, here you go: these are the best tailgating foods of all time, whether you’re scarfing them down in a crowd or solo on the couch.
20. Salads… I guess
I have to include one vegan-friendly, gluten-lacking option in here, if only to appease everyone’s diets. Of course, you can add French fries to this equation. We call that a Pittsburgh salad.
19. Potato salad
You know what? Just swap your regular salad for a potato salad, then you won’t have to worry about the French fry part.
18. Actually, just French fries
You know what? Why don’t we skip the lettuce and the pretenses and just go with an extra large bucket of French fries, and just nix the whole salad part. Deal? Deal.
And if you’re already digging into French fries, why not opt to upgrade to Canadian nachos? While not the most traditional of all tailgating food, consider eating it before Raptors, Blue Jays, or pretty much any hockey game. And it certainly might come in handy for the Canada-adjacent Buffalo Bills… I have to assume the fans in the parking lot of New Era Field might need to line their stomachs. For obvious reasons.
16. Otter Pops
You might call these freeze-pops, or icy pops, or “those popsicle tubes that come in 100 packs at Costco and rip open your lips and gums when you try to open them with your mouth.” Either way, they are cheap, easy to store (in a cooler, obviously) and one of the most underrated snacks on this or any planet. But, it’s a warm-weather specialty, making it inapplicable in most of the United States for the greater part of the year. Also, my mouth still has scar tissue from the Blue Raspberry Incident of ’97.
15. Breakfast sandwiches
No. 17, like Otter Pops before it, is a victim of circumstance. No one enjoys a BEC with SP& K (Bacon, egg, and cheese with salt, pepper, and ketchup) more than I do. And for football games that start at 1pm, breakfast food is the go-to. I think it’s more than OK to down traditional “morning food” at any point during the day, but there’s always a contingency of people who just refuse to eat breakfast food past the crack of noon. Unfortunately, I still have to take their preferences into consideration.
14. Cheese plate
Like any self-serving millennial worth his artisanal sea salt, I dig a good cheese plate. And for practicality purposes, smoked meats and cheese travel well and aren’t messy. They also add an air of elegance to your back lot shenanigans. Which simultaneously makes me like cheese plates more… and less.
13. Last night’s pizza
We all know that the only thing better than fresh pizza right out of the oven is cold pizza when you wake up hungover and pants-less and reeking of cheap beer and for some reason lighter fluid. So, if you are in a rush to get right to the game time because, let’s say, you wake up hungover and pants-less and reeking of cheap beer and for some reason lighter fluid-cold pizza is certainly an option. Maybe your only option. Get it together, man.
12. Mac & cheese
Mac & cheese is excellent. It’s what we all want for Thanksgiving. It might not be the go-to for sports, however.
11. Pulled pork
If we’re going purely by taste (or, as I like to call it, the “deliciousity-metric”), this would be higher. No question. But in order to make pulled pork, you need time, energy (both electricity and effort), and a slow cooker. Three things you don’t want to mess with while cracking various cold ones open with the boys/girls. Too hard!
Nachos are a classic! But, for every nacho you consume, you raise the probability of ruining your fresh new authentic sportsball jersey by at least 34%. And there’s no easier way to look like a big, fat, intoxicated slob than having a football jersey laced in blotches of melted orange cheese.
9. Cookies and/or brownies
You might be saying to your screen: “What is this, a tailgate or a bake sale?!” Firstly, you are talking to yourself, weirdo. Secondly, do you know why there’s hardly ever any leftover cookies and/or brownies at public events, tailgates or otherwise? Because they practically get inhaled. Everyone loves ’em.
8. Party subs
Now we are getting to the sweet center of tailgating bliss. Party subs are just the best. They are the stretch-limos of sandwiches. The main bummer is that you will almost certainly be forced to share.
You might think this is a little low for the burger. It’s not that burgers aren’t good tailgating food-it’s just that there are so many tailgating foods that are better. It just can’t go all the way to the top. Consider burgers the Kansas City Chiefs of this list.
Chili and chili-based dishes are, of course, a tailgating essential. But you either have to make it yourself-which takes a lot of time, effort, and spices-or buy a subpar version somewhere that gets cold on your car ride home. Also, it’s super messy. Delicious, but messy.
Wings have everything a perfect tailgate food needs: it’s meat, you eat it with your hands, it can be the base for a limitless variety of sauces, and of course, you can smoke ’em. But, there’s literally nothing worse than a backseat filled with the skeletons of gnawed-on wings the morning after a big game. Or even a medium-sized game. The point is: they can get super gross, after the fact.
See above. But, the bones are a little less gross.
Brats are, effectively, upscale hot dogs. Which is good. You can also soak them in beer before you cook them. Which is very, very good. Overall, a solid showing. Extra points because you can comfortably eat these wieners, sans bun.
2. Chips and dip
Yea, it’s basic. Yes, it violates several guidelines I faulted earlier options for (pre-made, no-meat, messy). But it’s such a core tenet of snacking, and an overwhelmingly potent crowd-pleaser. Even going through the motions of dipping and eating these chips is cathartic, and gives you a reliable activity to do with your hands. If you are anything like me, you never know what to do with your hands.
1. Hot dogs
Consider the hot dog. Hand-held. An ideal vessel for any number of toppings. Includes meat. No risk of being asked to share. Goes down easy. Pairs well with beer. Can contain most of the major food groups, if properly stacked. Almost effortless to make. Simple to transport. Not pretentious. Hard to screw up. Easy to love. The hot dog. It is what it is. The perfect tailgating food.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Wil Fulton is a writer and producer for Thrillist. His favorite tailgate song is “Unchained Melody.” Follow him: @wilfulton
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.