“You’re out of your mind.”
“I honestly don’t understand how you came up with this list.”
“How dare you, sir. Seriously. What gives you the right?”
These were just a few of the responses I got last year after I posted my list of the “Top 10 Tailgate Foods” for college football gatherings across the country - and these were just the reactions my friends sent me.
And so, naturally, with this fantastic vote of confidence from my readership, I’ve decided to dive once again into the list of the very best dishes to bring to your next game day.
Once again, the criteria is as follows…
"Bulkability" - How much can you bring to the tailgate without losing quality? A tailgate dish is only as good as the number of people it satisfies.
"Cook-it-yourself-ness" - Is this a dish that’s reliably accessible to make? This isn’t about which caterer in town has the best pasta salad, and it’s also not about that secret family recipe your grandmother brings to every game day (though if you got that - send it our way!). This is about classic dishes that everyone can/should be making for a DIY tailgate.
"Lack-of-spoilability" - How well does this dish hold up over the course of a day? You’re in it for the long haul when you’re planning a tailgate, so you can’t have any dishes that may lose their luster under the hot sun.
"Finger-foodie" - Can you eat it off a plate while on your feet, taking in the game day experience? While any self-respecting tailgater will have some plastic cutlery on hand, mobility is the name of the game.
"Game-time-readiness" - Will this food get you ready for kickoff? You hate to see it: someone gets too wild with the carbs at the tailgate... and is falling asleep by the time the game gets underway. Your tailgate food should be fuel for the main event, and this list rewards foods that do just that.
"The Dip Rule" - Just a reminder from last year: we're going to be talking about dips here, and I'd like everyone to assume the optimal chip options are involved for those, so that we don't waste a spot debating "tortilla chips" vs. "blue corn chips" vs. "potato chips." Cool? Cool.
And now, let’s get to the list...
10. Fruit Salad
Dropping one spot from last year, fruit salad is still an absolutely vital part of any tailgate set-up. It’s sweet, it’s sensible, it’s healthy, it pairs perfectly with the meatier options on the list - and think of the varieties you can choose from!
Whether you choose a watermelon or cantaloupe base to build from, you’ll be able to mix and match everyone’s preferences for the perfect combination of refreshment in this flexible side dish, earning it a mainstay position on our list.
I know, I know, this is a steep drop for hamburgers… but it stems from personal experience.
Last fall, I attended a friend’s tailgate/cookout/watch party during a very high profile college football game. The spread was fantastic, but I found myself particularly hungry - so I headed to the grill to get a burger to kick things off.
It was a perfectly cooked patty, with a great mix of spices and beef combining to create a satisfyingly delicious creation… a little too satisfying.
After I was done, I had no room left for the rest of the food, and what’s worse, because of the bun-to-patty combination I started to feel myself losing steam from the heaviness by the time halftime was just ending.
So yes, we’re dropping hamburgers this year - but as you’ll see, there are better, lighter options that score higher on our “game-time-readiness” meter, and thus this is a necessary bump.
Better luck next year, burgers.
8. Homemade Italian Skewers
A newcomer to the list, but one that will take your tailgate to the next level:
Get yourself some Italian meats (capicola and prosciutto are my favorites but I’m not here to judge), add some cheese (here’s a great run down of how to pair meat and cheese), throw on an olive, drizzle some olive oil on top of it and finish with parsley - then put a stick through all of it.
Congratulations! You’ve just upgraded a meat and cheese plate to something that will have your whole tailgate buzzing.
7. Smoked Ribs
I stand by what I said last year: if you’re bringing a full smoker to a tailgate and serving up tender racks of ribs to your guests - I salute you; you’re the real hero.
But ribs find themselves just 7th on the list this year because there are just too many “if’s” associated: if you have a smoker, if you have the time, if you have enough napkins (this one gets messy, after all)...
On a list that includes “cook-it-yourself-ness” as one of its core criteria, then, the bar is too high for this dish to be readily accessible for the every-person to be able to cook it.
Another newcomer to the list, kabobs are balanced, versatile, mobile, and in an era where Instagram fodder is extremely important to the success of an event… a grilled kabob with a perfectly charred cook is a showstopper.
The only potential hang-up with them is that they’re a great deal of work for a small “per-guest” serving size. Between cutting up the meat and veggies, skewering each individual combination, then tossing them on the grill - the bulkability suffers a tad, here, and thus I had to knock it some points.
However, these are the kind of unique addition to your tailgate that will ensure your guests remember you went above and beyond for them.
5. Pico de Gallo
Pico de gallo is really the best of all possible worlds when it comes to tailgating: it’s easy to make (just mix together tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and some lime juice and boom… you’re on your way), it’s bulkable, it’s mobile, and it keeps things light and fresh on game day.
The only thing that prevents it from jumping ahead of anything else on the list at this point is simply that it largely complements everything else at the tailgate, rather than being able to stand on its own.
However, no tailgate should go without a chips and salsa option - and unless your heart is set on a generic, store-bought jar of dip… some homemade pico is your best option.
4. Buffalo Chicken Dip
Some folks were outraged that buffalo chicken dip was so high on our list last year, landing seventh.
So this year, naturally, I’m doubling down and putting it into the top four.
As dips go, there’s nothing quite as good on game day - it’s filling, you can make a bunch of it, and while it’s traditionally crafted specifically to be paired with a chip, of course… who amongst us hasn’t just grabbed a fork to dig in once all the chips are gone?
There are plenty of great game day dips but, as I said last year, this one tops them all.
3. Tie: Hot Dogs and Brats
Last year I took the controversial position of putting brats above hot dogs - but this year’s take might be even more egregious… because I’m declaring them equals.
The two sides of the “hot dog vs. brat” argument are passionate about their picks - even my wife, born and bred in Wisconsin, told me I was “objectively wrong” for not putting brats #1 overall on this list - but in terms of their function within a tailgate, the hairs are just too thin to split.
Both require the same bun purchase, the same type of cook, and while the fixings may be a little different, whether you’re getting sauerkraut or chopped onions - it’s easy to argue that if you’re going to cook one, it behooves you to also just cook the other.
And of course, they both have the same strengths (filling, easily mobile, a classic tailgate staple), as they do weaknesses (can be a tad generic, lacks the “wow” factor of our top two picks) - so my vote is both. Both is good. Get both.
Last year’s winner drops a spot on this year’s list, and to find out why, let’s start by giving it its due - here’s what I wrote on the 2018 list:
Easy to make? Check.
Easy to transport? Absolutely.
Versatile? You know it.
Put simply, sliders are the perfect tailgate food - from its finger-foodie-ness (they're literally mini-sandwiches), to its customization (you can have countless combinations, and unlike a burger your group can try 3-4 different types throughout the day), to its bulkability (you could make 10-30 at once depending on grill size/type of sandwich).
Some will say that choosing such a general type of food at #1 is cheating, but doesn't that just further prove that when making your tailgate menu, this classic tailgate food is the very best option you can choose?
To answer my own question: it does not. Because there’s one food that does all that and a little something more...
Tacos are everything you could ask for from a game day treat… and then some.
Not only do tacos check all of our boxes - from how easy they are to make, to their bulkability, to their ability to fill you up without slowing you down, along with their obvious versatility - they actually have something even more than everything else: ithey effortlessly incorporate everything else you’ve already made at the tailgate.
Take your pico de gallo as a topper, of course - but also don’t forget to save some extra cheese from your buffalo chicken dip to add, as well. Your chopped onions that you were hoping to add to a hot dog? Grill them up and add them to your taco bar, too.
And hey, if you want to give people options, getting ground beef for the taco meat can easily be split up for burgers, as well - along with some chicken for kabobs, or even pork carnitas for sliders.
So, why do tacos take our #1 spot this year? Because they’ll make everything else at your tailgate that much better...
Want to keep your tailgate going all weekend long?
With a Rent Like A Champion home, you're able to cook in your own private kitchen - helping you cook up unforgettable memories, even after the final hot (OR BRAT) is gone...