Crisp air and brightly colored foliage signal the beginning of what most Americans consider the best season of the year: Football season.  And while football may be one of the nation’s favorite sports, it would be nothing without the incredible fan base that supports every loss and celebrates every win.

True football fans know there is no better way to pledge loyalty to their favorite teams and players than by taking over stadium parking lots and sharing in the camaraderie of a traditional tailgate. Between 20 million and 50 million die-hard sports and tailgating enthusiasts come together every year around decked-out RV tents and folding tables to share food, drink and tales of victories past, according to the American Tailgaters Association. But with such high-spirited revelry, it’s easy to overlook the dangers, both obvious and lesser-known, that surround so many time-honored tailgate traditions.

Combat the Elements

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of a tailgate party is the endless array of dishes and snacks. Studies show that 51% of tailgaters set up their spot 3-4 hours before the game and sometimes continue the celebrations through, and even after, the game is long over. The University of Minnesota warns that foods left out in 40-89 degree temperatures are unsafe to eat after two hours (or one hour if temperatures are above 90 degrees). From set up to tear down, most tailgaters have tons of delicious spreads out for friends and passersby. But while the tailgate party rages on through the afternoon and evening, your prepared food is being left out, exposed to the beating sun, harmful bacteria and circling insects.

To avoid the risk of foodborne illness and risky conditions, keep your foods at their optimum temperature at all times. Temperature control applies to both hot and cold dishes; you can easily utilize products such as Thermoses, slow cookers and coolers for slaws and meats to keep your dishes safe to eat. You should also use plastic wrap or Tupperware containers to easily protect your dishes from insects, and you can dole out large batch dishes into individual cups or bowls beforehand to reduce the spread of germs.

Master the Flame

Oftentimes, a tailgate spot features the delicious smoky smell of a grill that permeates through the grounds. Data suggests that 95% of tailgaters prepare their food at the stadium (as opposed to bringing prepared dishes from home). But while pasta salad, coleslaw and fruit spreads are great sides, the main event of any tailgate is the meat. Chicken wings, pulled pork, burgers and franks - the array of meats being grilled, cooked or smoked is as essential to the tailgate as the game itself.

With 59% of tailgaters using a combination of grills, stoves, and smokers to cook at the stadium, it is essential to keep fire safety tactics in mind and to follow safe cooking temperature rules. FoodSafety.gov states all poultry and hot dogs should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F, while ground meats like pork or beef must meet a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Other cuts like steaks and chops should reach a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F to be consumed safely. And if manning the grill, smoker (and, ahem, beer keg) ever gets away from you, always keep a fire extinguisher within reach.

Keep it Green

Hundreds to thousands of people can attend a single tailgate – the Florida-Georgia football game tailgate is known as the “World’s Largest Cocktail Party” with more than 150,000 people in attendance – so the post-tailgate debris often resembles that left by a tornado.

If you’ve ever seen the aftermath of a tailgate space, you know why it’s so important to dispose of waste in the proper way. One simple trick to reducing the amount of waste your own tailgate produces is to use stainless steel water bottles instead of dozens of plastic ones. Also, try to accurately anticipate the amount of food you’ll need so you’re not stuck throwing away lots of leftovers.

Another obvious (yet often overlooked) way to reduce waste is to use recyclable paper or plastic plates, silverware, napkins and cups – and actually recycle them. Yes, it’s easier to throw everything in the same trash bin, but trust us, the planet will thank you for your extra effort.

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