There was a time when meat and beer were all that Kevin Thomas and his buddies needed for a good tailgate. These days, though, animal crackers and juice boxes are just as likely to grace the tailgating tables as brats and burgers.
Parking near a potty is a must and there has to be room for a "timeout tent."
"It's a more family-focused tailgate," says Thomas, who lives in Chicago with his wife, Beth, and 2-year-old daughter, Annie.
Thomas has been tailgating at Chicago Bears games for as long as he can remember. As a kid, Thomas tagged along with his grandfather and he wanted to share that same experience with Beth and Annie.
"I love football and tailgating. You love to do things you love with the people you love," Thomas says.
So, he and his friends have fashioned their tailgates around their families. The group of about 30 brings games and kid-friendly food and all the parents make sure there are areas for kids to run around and play.
"We always have a special tent or place for the kids," says Thomas' friend, Chris Brusznicki, also of Chicago. Brusznicki often tailgates with his wife, Maureen, and their children Evelyn, 5, Mack, 3, and Vivian, 1.
Brusznicki loves tailgating so much he started a tailgating business - GameDayHousing.com, which helps Chicago fans rent vacation homes for Bears (and college) games played at stadiums around the country. Sometimes Brusznicki starts tailgating at 4 a.m. or as soon as he can snag a parking spot. His wife follows later with the kids. Tailgating is so much a part of their lives that they dedicate the fall to football.
"When a friend says they're getting married in the fall, we grimace because it's a football weekend. It's a pretty important tradition and hobby," says Brusznicki. "We're pretty close to all of our friends and we're all fanatics about football and the teams that we follow and our kids are adopting the same mentality."
Though tailgating is essentially one big party, it's not all fun and games. "Tailgating with kids can be work," Thomas says.
With the help of Chicago tailgating veterans and other experts, Chicago Parent compiled a handful of tips for tailgating with kids.
1. Find the best spot.
You want the coveted tailgating spot-close to the bathrooms and with enough room for little ones to run. "We try to tailgate in an area where it's less congested and there's green space," says Thomas. The Waldron parking lot just south of Soldier Field is a favorite spot because of its close proximity to heated bathrooms.
2. Know the rules.
Check out tailgating regulations on the team's website, says tailgating expert Dave Lamm, founder of tailgatingideas.com., a website that provides tips for tailgating with kids. In the parking lots near Soldier Field, tents and balloons are not permitted, and grills and open fires are not allowed in covered garages.
3. Bring kid-friendly fare.
Though a lot of tailgating food like hot dogs and hamburgers are kid-friendly, bring plenty of snacks and drinks. Thomas usually makes sure Annie has her own bag of Goldfish crackers and grapes, as well as sippy cups filled with her favorite drinks.
Debi Lilly, event planner at A Perfect Event in Chicago, likes to go beyond typical tailgating grub.
"The perfect tailgate menu includes a colorful, healthy menu of finger or fork-friendly foods-no time or place for knives, cutting and such," Lilly says. A platter with cheeses, meats and grilled vegetables is perfect, Lilly says. Then, have some fun and create a chocolate board with cookies, brownies and miniature doughnuts.
4. Expect to entertain.
It's easy to get caught up in the social event of tailgating. But ignoring your kids might cause a meltdown. Bring games your kids like to play and play with them. Keep them included in setting up the tailgate or preparing the food. "You can't just unfold a tailgate and expect kids to hang out and listen to adult conversation for five hours," says Lamm. "If a kid doesn't feel included, he'll get bored real fast."
Backyard games like bag toss or ladder ball are good options, as well as coloring books and play dough. If all else fails, break out the iPad or portable DVD player. Brusznicki and his wife often split childcare duties. One parent might take the children for a walk around the parking lots or by the lake, while the other socializes. Then they switch. "We understand they need a change of scenery," Brusznicki says.
One way to keep kids busy is involve them in creating team pennants or posters, says Lilly. "It's great to have a big list of fun up your sleeve."
5. Don't push your luck.
Know your kids' limits. It's enjoyable for adults to hang out at a tailgate for six hours. Not so much for kids. If your kids are new to tailgating, start out slow, says Brusznicki. Start with two hours. If everything goes smoothly, tailgate longer the next time. The key is to get the kids to enjoy tailgating and want to do it again.
"Just do it. It seems like it might be hell in some cases because the kids are so upset and it's so hard to do, but kids adjust and they will be better behaved the next time," Thomas says. "You kind of just have to deal with the adjustment phase."
"It's just a ton of fun."