Bring the energy of the stadium home by using team colors to set the scene. Hang team pennants or banners around your party area, and ask guests to come dressed up as their favorite players. If you have a shady yard (or the game is at night), move the game outdoors with a screen you can make yourself after a trip to the hardware store (OK, the projector will send you over $100).
No tailgate is complete without good food and drink, and you’ll find savings by focusing your menu on foods you can make in large quantities. This fruity sangria is great for a crowd, especially when served in a cooler emblazoned with your team's logo. Make your own with a plain beverage cooler for $20 and stickers with your team’s logo. With access to electricity, opt for money-saving meals like Frito pie and sloppy Joes, which you can have keeping warm in the crockpot while you catch up with friends outdoors.
Tell guests to replace those jeans and jerseys with game day chic: chinos, dress shirts, and dresses in the team colors. If your favorite addition when dressing the table is a vase of flowers, don’t be dismayed if there is no room on the table for one — just hang this bud vase garland instead. Forget the buffet-style meal, and instead add an air of distinction by sitting down around the table for a family-style meal. Hang a faux chandelier above (using the roof of your tent or a pole) the table, and should your tailgate should run past sunset, don’t forget some battery-operated tea lights to add ambiance.
For a classier upgrade to the tailgate classics of burgers, brats, and beer, think finger foods and bubbly. This Champagne alternative will only set you back $7.99 a bottle and goes well with crispy tomato bruschetta. Bleeding Marys are a fancy alternative to other vodka cocktails, especially when paired with these Sweetie Meat Bites that you can make in advance, or fancy shrimp slathered in apricot sauce and grilled on site.
Just because grilling and cold beers go best with hot, sunny days doesn’t mean that when cold weather comes, all hopes of tailgating have to end. Winter activities like ice skating and cutting down the Christmas tree are just the occasions to keep the tailgating going even after snow has fallen. With a couple of air pots that will set you back only $20, you can warm up guests from the inside with warm drinks like mulled wine and boozy hot chocolate.
Make your grill work double duty for you, warming up guests standing around it while you cook. Use a brick wrapped in foil to press sandwiches with fillings like Brie and fig jam or mozzarella and prosciutto over the grate, or stick with something simple — grilled cheese sandwiches with a mug of tomato soup. For a sweet finish to the meal, end with s’mores cooked over the grill.
Assuming there won’t be any keg stands and beer pong competitions happening, tailgating is a great activity for the whole family, especially if you’re prepared. Begin by letting the kids help you set up and decorate the space with team banners, flags, and balloons. When it comes to put on your game face, they’ll be the ones going all out, so be sure to bring along lots of face paint (and a how-to guide). And as there will come a time when the kids will tire of corn hole and adult conversation, pack something that will keep them happy, like jump ropes or movies and a portable DVD player.
If the kids love grilled burgers and dogs, tweaking your classic game day menu to be kid-friendly shouldn’t be too difficult. But be prepared with plenty of snacks like Go-Gurt, string cheese, and almond fig balls, and a separate cooler (choose one with wheels for about $30 if you know they’ll want to lend a hand) just for kids filled with juice boxes, so you won’t have to rifle through cans of beer when they come to you thirsty.
If you’re serious about tailgating and even more serious about saving money, there is really only one way to go: potluck. Any experienced tailgater knows that the success of the party lies in the deliciousness of the food and the strength of the drinks. But instead of tackling the entire menu of food (not to mention drinks) yourself, recruit your friends to divide and conquer.
Assign two or three people each one tailgate favorite to bring, be it a dip, a salad, something on the grill, or a make-ahead cocktail. Then at the end of the day, but before too much of the beer and cocktails have been downed, host a taste off to award a winner for each category (it’s up to you what kind of logo-emblazoned memorabilia they get to take home.