Football, Food and RVs Galore: Tips to Having your Best "Family-Friendly" Tailgate Ever

Football, Food and RVs Galore: Tips to Having your Best "Family-Friendly" Tailgate Ever

Whether or not they realize it yet, my 4 and 6 year old children's collegiate future has been determined.  Grades willing, they will attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Don't get me wrong. If Harvard comes knocking, we will most certainly answer the door and let them in, but the orange and blue blood line runs strong. Including myself and my husband, we have 8 U of I alums in the family. Add to that the fact that my husband was born in Champaign, and heading back to the U of I truly feels like coming home.

With college football season upon us and my son's poster-sized drawing of Nathan Scheelhaase adorning our fridge, we decided the time was right to take the kids to their first U of I football game. And what better way to introduce them to the tailgating "experience" than by packing up along with my sister's family of 5 (also alums) into an RV and heading down I-57 at ludicrous speed to the Illinois Homecoming game this weekend.

The email chatter amongst family members has been building over the past few days, complete with lists and spreadsheet attachments (that's the  U of I Engineering degree kicking in). Our garage has become a staging area for grills, games, tents, tables, IPods and HD TVs. My husband is a self-proclaimed master of the tailgate. He and his college buddies have been making it an annual ritual at Illinois for the past 14 years and now operate like a well-oiled machine.

So I decided to pick his brain on some secrets to having a successful, family-friendly, and (for me) allergen aware tailgate.

Good People. This is perhaps the most important element to a tailgate. You are spending the entire day with these people (or 3 days in the case of our RV gang), so you want to include fun-loving and flexible personalities. It is not a requirement that you are a sports fan. You just can't be a sports hater.

Good Food. To me, second to having good people at a tailgate is having good food.  Having several attendees at a tailgate with dietary restrictions (we've got vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free this year) adds a twist on the tailgating menu, but it doesn't have to be a game changer. Planning ahead is crucial here. You will be at the tailgate for most of the day, there is the actual time of the game to factor in, and access to gluten free food at concession stands may be non-existent. This is also where the beauty of an RV kicks in. Having a stove, microwave oven, and freezer allows you the flexibility to bring some frozen gluten free meals and treats that can be easily prepared.

As for tailgate menu planning, the grill usually takes center stage. Here are a few suggestions for various meals throughout the day.

Breakfast: Coffee, juices, gluten free bagels with cream cheese (Tofutti cream cheese for dairy free), doughnuts, breakfast muffins and zucchini bread are all quick go-to breakfast options. For something a little more elaborate, consider breakfast burritos on the grill. Combine eggs, hashbrowns, and bacon or sausage wrapped in a toasted burrito. Corn tortillas do not work as well here, so getting a gluten free burrito-sized tortillas are highly recommended.  Or, make your own gluten free tortillas ahead of time and bring them with.

Lunch/Dinner: Meat is usually on the menu - grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, marinated skirt steaks. For vegetarian guests, grill a few portbello mushrooms and make those into burgers. Be sure to have hearty sides available such as gluten free pasta salads with veggies, potato salads, and various cheeses with crackers.

Snacks/Treats: Kids will nibble all day long. Fresh fruit, pretzels and chips, gluten free snacks, and gluten free Rice Krispie Treats are all easily portable. After the game, consider making s'mores on the grill for the kids. Take Jet Puffed marshmallows, Hershey's chocolate (or Ghirardelli 70% cacao dark chocolate for dairy-free), and Kinnickinnick Smoreables to make a s'more sandwich. Wrap it in foil and stick it on the grill for a gluten free treat.

Beverages: Bloody Marys are a meal in themselves and good to have on-hand along with mimosas for morning tailgates.  Redbridge beer and Woodchuck ciders are gluten free options for beer drinkers. And of course, plenty of water and juice boxes for the kids will keep everyone properly hydrated.

The Right Vehicle. This is totally subjective and highly variable. For a few college kids, this may mean no vehicle at all. Simply standing in a parking lot around a chilled case of beer (no chairs, no cooler) is highly portable and the entire experience only costs $12. For others, this may mean renting a $100,000 RV (a.k.a. "The Rizzle Vizzle") for the weekend to accommodate afternoon naps, frequent trips to the restroom, and on-demand viewing of Spaceballs and Disney Princess DVDs. Whatever works to transport you, your guests, and your tailgating goods is fine.

Location, Location, Location. Where you set up camp matters a bit, but isn't a critical factor to the success of a tailgate. Being closer to the stadium is a bit more "interesting", in terms of people watching and a more festive atmosphere. More important is seeking out a location on grass vs. concrete. Standing on grass all afternoon is more comfortable than concrete, and allows you to throw the football around with the kids. Trust me. There will be some tackle plays and missed passes.

Entertainment. The football game should be the primary entertainment of the day, unless someone brings a box of wine a game of "Slap the Bag" breaks out. Given that this is a family friendly tailgate, we will save that for a different post. With several adults and 6 children aged 4 to almost 14, it is important to come prepared with some games to keep people occupied. Footballs, washers, and bags are all good choices. A deck of cards can keep younger ones entertained with games of Go Fish or Memory.  For our tailgate, a TV is also a must. My husband's rationale is as follows:

  • It serves as a form of entertainment. During the tailgate, people can watch other football games taking place.
  • For those guests who either do not have a ticket or have consumed far too many beverages, they can watch the game without leaving the comfort of their folding chair.
  • It draws people to the tailgate. He referenced the girls' volleyball team as an example. I am a little suspect of this line of reasoning.

Wherever you travel to and however you tailgate, just remember to kick back, enjoy the ride, and savor the experience. If you happen to be heading to Champaign this weekend, stop by the Rizzle Vizzle tailgate for a beverage, gluten free snack, or to watch a little bit of Spaceballs with the kids.

Oskeewowow and may the shwartz be with you.

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