Don't let a tailgate derail your diet

Autumn is an exciting time of year with crisp and refreshing air, beautiful fall foliage and many fun social events such as Halloween parties, Homecomings and those epic football tailgates. Being a Penn State Alumni, I certainly appreciate the fun and eventful tailgating atmosphere. However, as a dietitian, it’s hard to look beyond the unhealthfulness of most tailgate foods and the amount of boozing involved.

Many of my clients are Eagles season ticket holders and this often poses an extreme challenge to staying “on track” with their healthy diet. My role, as their dietitian, is to figure out ways that my clients can still be social but not completely ruin their derail their quest towards a healthier lifestyle. Below, I have listed some my tried and true tips for navigating tailgates or hosting your own with healthy foods.

Rule 1: Bring snacks

As with going anywhere, my biggest tip is always to plan ahead and be prepared. If you’re hopping around from RV to RV in the parking lot at Lincoln Financial Field it can be a challenge to actually bring a dish that I know is healthy. So, I always make sure I bring RD-approved snacks with me so that I have something on hand to keep me from getting too hungry, which could lead to overindulging on unhealthy options. Think: fruit (most commonly apples), almonds, dry roasted edamame, healthier granola bars (like Kashi Trail Mix) and a water bottle. Of course, I will partake in some of the food the host has provided, but I keep those portions small and try to load up on vegetables whenever available.

Rule 2: Swap your favorite tailgate food with a healthy alternative

When it comes to hosting a tailgate, you have all the power to provide healthy snacks and meals that your guests will likely enjoy. You can differentiate your tailgate from all the others by providing tastier yet healthier foods such as the ideas below:

VEGGIES: Whether you’re hosting a tailgate or just having a cocktail party, ALWAYS have a vegetable tray! In social situations, most people mindlessly eat, so give your guests the options to fill their plate with lots of raw veggies so that they are filling up on goodness and not calorie dense foods. Vegetables transport well and go great with many dips, such as the tuna and artichoke spinach dips mentioned below.

TUNA DIP: Instead of a traditional ranch dip or costlier crab dip, create this healthy dip! All you need is one can or pouch of tuna (in water, drained) to mix with 8 oz. low-fat cream cheese, 3 crushed garlic cloves, 1-2 tbsp. of mayo (or try substituting guacamole!) and a dash of salt.  Serve with raw veggies, whole grain crackers like Triscuit or Ak Mak or whole grain tortilla chips. Surely a crowd pleaser, and easy on the wallet! In fact, a recent Nutritional Journal study found that canned tuna is the most affordable way to reap the benefits of seafood, which we should all be eating at least twice a week.

GREEK YOGURT ARTICHOKE SPINACH DIP: Artichoke dip is always a crowd pleaser, but it is usually very high in calories and saturated fat. To make a healthier version, use one cup plain non-fat Greek yogurt, 14 oz. artichoke hearts (in water, drained), one cup part-skim shredded mozzarella cheese, a 10 oz. pack frozen spinach, 3 garlic cloves and ¼ c reduced-fat parmesan cheese. Chop hearts and mix all ingredients together, saving some of the cheeses to top the casserole with. Place ingredients in a casserole dish, top with extra cheese and bake at 350°F for 20-25 min or put in a slow cooker if you have access to electricity at the tailgate. Keep in mind that coolers can easily be turned into a heating device as suggested on this link.

TURKEY OR CHICKEN BURGERS: Sure you can serve beef patties for those hard-core meat eaters, but many people nowadays are trying to eat healthier and actually prefer turkey/chicken burgers over beef, so I recommend always having one of these options available at tailgates. You can absolutely make your own, but for convenience, pick up a few packs of pre-made turkey or chicken burgers in the refrigerator or freezer section of most supermarkets. Always check the labels though, as some brands of turkey burgers can be nearly as high fat and calorie dense as beef patties. I recommend Shady Brook Farms Seasoned Ground Turkey Patties, which contain only 170 calories and 9 grams of fat compared to 290 calories and 23 grams of fat with the same weight beef burger.

ALCOHOL: While no alcohol would be considered “healthy” for clients trying to cut calories, I recommend sticking to light beer and/or vodka with club or seltzer. Make sure you always have water on hand and try to drink a bottle in between each alcoholic beverage. Keep in mind that each light beer is going to cost you around 120 calories, so try to spread them out over the course of the night and don’t overdo it. Drinking heavier beers or mixed drinks are going to do a lot of damage due to the high quantities of alcohol and sugar.

DESSERTS: If you are highly tempted by sweets, I recommend not serving them at a tailgate, as very few people will even notice they are missing. However, if you just have to have a bite of dessert, try to modify recipes to make them slightly healthier. If you are making cookies, for instance, cut the sugar by a third, and maybe use whole-wheat pastry flour.  One very simple and semi-healthy dessert are rice krispie treats with a whole grain cereal like plain cheerios.

Game time recommendations

So, if you are off to a tailgate this weekend for the Eagles game, be sure that you go prepared. Pack your snacks and water, and be very conscious of what you consume throughout the day. Those mindless calories add up quick!

If you are hosting a tailgate, do you and your guests a favor by trying to incorporate some healthy options such as veggies, whole grain crackers and healthier versions of traditional tailgate fare. By doing so, your guests will most likely feel better physically throughout the day and will actually enjoy the food they are eating. Hopefully by adhering to some of my recommendations, football season will have you feeling lean leading into the holidays.

Kelly Strogen, MS, RD, LDN is the owner and Registered Dietitian for Wayne Nutrition LLC in Wayne, PA where she is very focused on educating and counseling clients to enable them to reach their optimal health potential, making recommendations based on the most dependable scientific evidence and from years of experience working with clients. She also writes for her personal blog Kelly’s Pantry.

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