Build a better, more nutritious tailgate party

Football, tailgating and eating clean really can happily co-exist. And you don’t have to be “that guy” (or girl) toting around a gallon of water and a Tupperware container of plain chicken with brown rice. Nor are you relegated to serving an (admittedly boring) platter of raw veggies and hummus in order to provide a healthful option.

But it is important to at least give some thought to what’s being served at the tailgate, nutritionally speaking.

If you’re hosting a tailgate, it’s likely that at least a few of your fellow fans will have some type of nutritional concern, whether it’s elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol, or they may be trying to shed a few extra pounds.

We’re not saying that we’re all responsible for everyone else’s health, of course, but it is sort of our responsibility to provide at least a few healthful options to make it easier for our friends and family to stay on track with their wellness endeavors.

They’ll appreciate it, you’ll feel good about it, and who knows – you may even help a few fans discover some nutritious foods or drinks they hadn’t tried before.

And even if you’re not hosting the tailgate, it’s a good idea to bring at least one or two nutritious items so that you know you’ll have something to fall back on, regardless of what else is served.

To take the guesswork out of planning and enjoying game-day festivities without wrecking your wellness goals, here are five steps to help build a better, more nutritious tailgate:

1. Select your splurge

Decide ahead of time what’s worth it and indulge — well-planned and guilt-free. For me, one of these worth-it splurges is freshly fried turkey with that perfectly crispy skin. Or the bacon-wrapped, shrimp-stuffed jalapeno peppers that the guys throw on the grill.

The point is, this is that special something that you can’t get just anywhere, any time of the year. For some, tailgate parties might be some of the few times a year that you allow yourself fried chicken. For others, it’s game-day specialty cocktails that are worth the indulgence — and you don’t mind skipping the other stuff to keep calories in check as much as possible.

2. Upgrade your mixers

Speaking of cocktails: Whether you’re hosting or just strolling among the pre-game festivities, plan to have a selection of no-calorie mixers on hand. We’ve found that people really seem to like flavored options such as La Croix, Dasani Sparkling, or Target’s Simply Balanced sparkling waters. They have zero calories and nothing artificial, but they’re flavored, which can make us inclined to drink more of them — and also helps us stay better-hydrated. Plus they’re a hipper, more current addition to any tailgate setup, instead of the same old, same old (high calorie and sugar-filled) Coke, Sprite, and tonic water.

3. Plan your protein

Protein is essential for a variety of whole-body benefits, including maintaining muscle mass, metabolism, alertness and focus. Even on game day, protein is key.

Simply put, protein-rich foods help us to feel fuller, longer. Translation: When we have a plan to incorporate lean protein throughout the day, we’re less likely to mindlessly snack our way through the game.

If you’re grilling, having a source of lean protein is a no-brainer. Think skinless chicken breasts and thighs, pork loin, lean burgers and veggie burgers. And chicken sausage is an easy win every time. It requires almost no preparation; just throw it on the grill. If you haven’t tried it in a while, give it a shot. Available in a wide range of flavors — such as Spicy Andouille, Spicy Italian, and Spinach & Feta Cheese — it can be as good as (if not better than) many varieties of pork sausage, with about half the calories and 75 percent less saturated fat.

For one-pot or slow-cooker dishes that are rich in protein, there’s always chili (made with extra-lean ground beef, turkey, or bison), shredded chicken (serve plain, over a salad, or as sliders), or seafood-packed gumbo, served with brown rice (or skip the rice altogether).

If you’re strolling around visiting tailgates, plan ahead for your protein fix, just in case. Stash protein-rich snacks such as protein bars and jerky into a purse or backpack, and have a protein-rich breakfast or snack before you head out for the game.

4. Slip in some nutritious stuff

Hands down, my favorite game-day good-for-you appetizer is hot spinach and artichoke dip, made with Greek yogurt instead of mayo or sour cream. We’ve featured the recipe in this column before (you can find it here).

I’m also a fan of grilled vegetable platters (typically much more appealing than trays of raw veggies) and grilled fruit kebobs.

And, of course, there are lightened-up dips served with veggies instead of chips or crackers. To shave calories even further, try blending cottage cheese into any and all creamy dips. Trust me, just try it. Puree the cottage cheese first, until smooth. Then mix it in a 1:1 ratio with any creamy dip to create a dip with about 30 percent fewer calories, three times more protein, and the added bonus of extra calcium. It works especially well with guacamole, ranch dip, French onion dip, and even hummus.

5. Watch out for the mindless nibbles

Step away from the trail mix. Or mixed nuts, seven-layer dip, or pita chips with hummus. Even legitimately healthful foods can be incredibly dense with calories, cramming 1,000-plus calories into just a few handfuls. Incorporating each of the four steps above can help: Eating protein-rich foods frequently through the day; staying well-hydrated with no-calorie, flavored drinks and mixers; sneaking in nutrient-rich foods; and negotiating your splurges.

If, in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself mindlessly polishing off a bowl of pretty much anything, literally step away from the food. Remember that it’s just that — food. It will be there later. Instead, put your focus on the game, and especially on the people around you. Catch up with friends and family that you haven’t seen in a while. Really listen to them, tuning in to what’s been happening in their lives since last year’s football season. That’s the stuff that really matters — the food will always be there.

The bottom line: With a little planning and a bit of discipline, it’s absolutely possible to build a better-for-you tailgate that will leave you feeling solid throughout the fourth quarter. And even better: There’s no post-game or day-after “what was I thinking, why did I eat that” remorse.

Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. Follow her on Facebook: and Twitter:

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