Fall is almost here, and that means one thing: Football season is finally back.
Whether you’re a devoted member of the Dawg Pack or don’t know a fumble from a sack, chances are you still recognize a tailgate party when you see one in all its deep-fried, cheese-smothered, beer-filled glory.
But when game day rolls around, what’s a health-conscious fan to do?
Say hello to your tailgate food coach, Sally Hara, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Nutrition Clinic at UW Medical Center – Northwest. Hara dishes on what to skip and what to stock up on to make your pregame routine a healthy one.
Game day party fouls
Some tailgate mainstays may be delicious, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily nutritious. Which ones deserve a flag for unhealthy content?
As much as you’re rooting for them, your favorite fried foods aren’t scoring too many points with Hara.
“Anything fried is going to be a high-fat, high-calorie item,” she says. “So, when possible, you want to go for something grilled or baked instead of fried.”
While you can try making slightly healthier versions of your fried faves at home using an air fryer, you’re better off subbing in completely new dishes to create a more balanced spread.
Instead of french fries, opt for baked potatoes, potato wedges or potato skins topped with Parmesan cheese, low-fat sour cream and a sprinkle of chives. And in place of that bucket of chicken wings, try something leaner, like grilled chicken kebabs or baked chicken tenders with barbecue sauce.
As for those oh-so-snackable potato chips and cheese-smothered nachos, Hara suggests calling in alternates like popcorn, pretzels or a tray of veggies with hummus or salsa.
If the only salad at your game day get-together is something smothered in mayo, then it might be time to rethink your sides.
“Mayonnaise-based things like potato salad and egg salad tend to be higher in fat and can also become a source of food poisoning pretty quickly if they’re left out for more than two hours,” Hara notes.
Good replacements are lettuce-based salads, fruit and veggie platters and hearty-but-healthy options like baked beans or bean soup.
“These are often the types of things that people forget to bring to a tailgate party, but when those dishes are there, people really appreciate having them,” Hara says.
While it’s fine to enjoy an alcoholic beverage or two, it’s always wise to set limits. Beer, mixed drinks and even lower-calorie alternatives like spiked seltzer are a significant source of empty calories, Hara says.
“Alcohol is devoid of all nutrients,” she explains. “Scientifically, it’s not even considered a nutrient — it’s a toxin.”
While there’s no way you can make that IPA any healthier for you, there are steps you can take to practice better drinking habits.
According to the national guidelines for low-risk drinking, you shouldn’t consume more than three alcoholic drinks per day if you’re a woman or four drinks per day if you’re a man, so try to be mindful of how much you’re sipping over the course of the game.
At the very least, Hara says, make it a rule to drink a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage you have. This helps you pace your drinking and ward off dehydration problems down the line, which contribute to hangovers.
While you may consider pizza the GOAT of your tailgating party — because, honestly, who doesn’t like pizza? — Hara says this mainstay can blindside you if you’re not careful.
The problem, she notes, is that most pizza comes loaded with cheese and greasy toppings.
Rather than sidelining this all-star, though, Hara has a compromise.
“Try cutting your pizza up into smaller slices or squares so they’re hors d’oeuvres size,” she says. “That way, people can limit their portions if they choose.”
Not all your game day go-tos are fumbles. These fan favorites show up big for your healthy eating plans.
Burgers may not seem all that nutritious, but if they’re made with lean beef or ground turkey, you can enjoy them without any qualms. Just be sure to keep patties to a manageable size to avoid overeating.
As for those hot dogs and brats, Hara suggests going for leaner versions like chicken apple sausages. You can also try serving them in different ways, like slices within a brat-and-veggie kebab.
“If you choose a leaner variety of meat or think about ways to add in veggies like bell peppers and cherry tomatoes, it ups your game,” Hara says.
Slow-cooker chilis and stews
As the football season heads into cold-weather months, you may feel inclined to bust out the slow cooker. Hearty comfort food dishes like chili, stews, baked beans and bean soup are all winners in Hara’s book.
“These can actually be really good,” she explains. “They’re a filling choice, and they’re not overly laden in empty calories.”
It’s also a great way to use up any leftover veggies you may have at home, she adds.
Fresh fruit and smart snacks
Another tailgate underdog that manages to impress is that unassuming fruit platter. Many people appreciate having this healthy option to snack on, Hara says.
You can also sub in the aforementioned pretzels, popcorn and veggie sticks as additional finger food options. But if you just can’t cut dessert completely from the party, don’t stress that cookies are going to ruin everything.
“I’m not against having cookies,” Hara says. “It’s just about portion control. Make them a bit smaller so people can manage what they want to have.”
Extra points for game day
While revamping your recipe lineup is one way to earn points on game day, don’t forget to practice basic healthy eating habits, too.
Eat breakfast (yes, really)
“A lot of times people will skip breakfast thinking that they’ll make up the calories later,” Hara says. “That just sets you up for failure because you become too hungry later and then you overeat.”
Instead, she advises you to eat breakfast and lunch at the times you normally do. Yes, even if you have a massive tailgating party planned for the afternoon.
That way you’ll be reasonably full whenever kickoff rolls around and won’t be tempted to overindulge.
Practice mindful eating
Do you snack your way through all four quarters? Or eat mindlessly from the chip bowl just because it’s in front of you?
Back away from the food table, Hara says.
“It’s much better to bring a plate to the food table, fill it as you want so you can control the portions and then walk away,” she explains. “When you eat straight out of the bowl or bag, it’s too easy to lose track.”
Try to be aware of how much food you’re putting on your plate, too, as it’s easy to go on autopilot and fill every square inch with food. Instead, think about how much you actually want to eat and put only that amount on your plate, Hara says.
That’s not to say you can’t go back for seconds if you’re still feeling peckish or indulge in a less-than-healthy dish every now and again.
“You just want to avoid mindless eating, and these little tricks can help you pay attention,” Hara says.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Northwest Hospital is now UW Medical Center – Northwest, a second campus of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.