6 Tailgating Tips That Score Big for Your Health

From main courses to snacks and booze, you don’t have to sacrifice fun or flavor

Football season means tailgating time! Unfortunately, calories can add up quickly, especially if you’re a die-hard fan.

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Adding a few healthy dishes to your menu can be a total game-changer. Whether you’re watching the big game with family or gathering with friends before the festivities kick off, it’s surprisingly easy to swap in better-for-you versions of everyone’s favorite game-day foods — without sacrificing flavor or feelings of indulgence.

Dietitian Kate Patton MEd, RD, LD, CSSD, shares six healthy tips when it comes to your tailgating habits.

Cook up some kebabs

It’s possible to make burgers that won’t bog you down, but if you’re planning to fire up the grill, why not try kebabs instead? Stack them with your choice of meat (stick to chicken or shrimp, if you’re looking for the healthiest option), plus peppers, onions, mushrooms, pineapple or other produce you enjoy. Brush them with olive oil and herbs for a surge of flavor.

“Kebabs have fewer calories and less saturated fat than other tailgate options,” Patton says. Here are two healthy, tasty kebab recipes to try:

Get imaginative with appetizers

When you think of appetizers, do you think of fried foods? Time to change the narrative that wings and mozzarella sticks are the only options for pre-meal munchies.

Patton offers up one important reminder, though: “Just remember to practice portion control,” she says. “Even the healthiest appetizers should be eaten in moderation.” Try these:

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  • Guilt-Free Deviled Eggs: This classic but slightly modified recipe is simple, satisfying and takes just 15 minutes to make.
  • Spinach-Filled Spanakopitas: Go heart-healthy by swapping out full-fat cheese and butter for reduced-fat feta, cottage cheese and lots of herbs.
  • Sweet and Sour Turkey Meatballs: Opt for ground turkey breast instead of ground beef, which cuts down on calories, fat and saturated fat.

Skip the chips, but keep the potatoes

Potatoes are a common game-day staple, but to keep things healthy, skip the chips and the mayo-heavy potato salad. “They’re traditionally high in fat and calories,” Patton warns.

Looking for a spin on the common spud? Try a baked potato bar! Rub the outside of the potatoes in olive oil, individually wrap them in aluminum foil and set them straight onto the grill. Set out bowls of toppings options, like salsa, sautéed spinach, black beans and Parmesan cheese — all in moderation.

If you’re just not feeling a baked potato bar, or if you need a more portable potato recipe to take with you to a potluck, here are some other options:

Transform traditional pasta salad

Your taste buds may love a good old-fashioned deli pasta salad, but it doesn’t do much (if anything) for your body. When grains are refined, the two outer layers — the bran and germ — are removed in an attempt to enhance the taste and extend shelf life. But this process also removes important nutrients like vitamin B and fiber.

“Using 100% whole-wheat (or any whole grain) pasta or bean-based pasta will increase your intake of key nutrients associated with improved glycemic control and decreased risk of coronary heart disease,” Patton says. Try these pasta salad recipes, for a change:

Snack smartly

Calories can add up quickly if you’re a die-hard snack fan, so try pairing your healthy entrée choices with nutritious snacks like air-popped popcorn, grilled corn, multigrain crackers with hummus and guacamole, fresh fruit salad and a crudité platter.

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And if you’re a big fan of dips, don’t despair. There are lots of options that retain the vibe (and the flavor) without packing in the calories.

Don’t feel beholden to beer

If you’re hosting a party at home, consider serving Bloody Marys instead of beer. “Because the base is potassium-rich tomato juice, they provide more nutrients than other alcoholic beverages,” Patton explains. Try a “Boosted” Bloody Mary, which sneaks in some omega-3 fatty acids through the addition of kale.

Just be sure to go light on the salt, and always drink alcohol in moderation — defined as one glass per day for women and people assigned female at birth and two glasses for men and people assigned male at birth.

And remember: You don’t have to rely on booze to have a great time tailgating. Approximately 15 million Americans live with alcohol use disorder (AUD), and alcohol can contribute to feelings of anxiety (not to mention nasty hangovers). Serve up something fun and nonalcoholic, like:

  • Berry Basil-ade: This antioxidant-rich option has no added sweeteners and an intriguing blend of savory and sweet flavors.
  • Fruit-Infused Water: What? Water?! Infusing standard H20 with fruits and herbs gives it a boost of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and taste.
  • Refreshing Mock-A-Rita: Made with lemonade or limeade, it’s got all the flavor and none of the alcohol. 

Keep food safety in mind

Don’t let foodborne illness spoil your fun. Not sure how long to cook your meats? Safe procedures include cooking to an internal temperature of:

  • 145 degrees Fahrenheit (66.77 degrees Celsius) for whole meats (allowing the meat to rest for three minutes before eating).
  • 160 F (71.11 C) for ground meats.
  • 165 F (73.8) for all poultry.

And don’t forget other food safety practices: Clean plates and utensils well to avoid cross-contamination, wash produce before preparation and refrigerate high-protein foods after they’ve been sitting out for a while — one hour for hot weather and two hours in colder weather.

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