Tips for Terrific Tailgating

Enjoy the football festivities without fear of fat.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Cool autumn weekends bring blankets, blue jeans, and spirited football games. At colleges and universities across the country, game day has become a ritual of sophisticated food and festivity. The perfect formula for a fun-filled day involves toting along coolers, barbecue grills, and baskets of food, then serving up a feast from the trunk of your vehicle. Oh, yeah -- there's also the football game!

My first tailgating experience was a few years ago, when my son was a freshman at the University of Georgia. I was amazed at the sea of red and black in the enormous Sanford stadium. But even more remarkable than the crazed fans were the portable feasts that occupied nearly every square inch of the college campus before the big game. Tailgating has long since progressed from chips and cold sandwiches to sophisticated buffets complete with tablecloths.

This all-American fall ritual can seem a little intimidating when you're watching your weight. But there's no reason a tailgate picnic has to sideline your weight loss efforts. With a little planning, you can stick to your healthy eating plan while cheering on your favorite team.

Take a Tailgate Time Out

Before you dive into the buffet, follow these tips to curb your caloric intake:

  • Earn a little splurge on Saturday afternoon by saving a few food items from your eating plan during the week.
  • Before the festivities begin, have a small snack that contains protein and fiber (like cereal and yogurt) so you'll be less tempted to overeat.
  • Survey all the offerings before you load your plate, then select plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean dairy and protein.
  • Eat from a plate instead of continually grazing from the buffet. This will help you keep track of how much you're eating.
  • Remember that alcohol has plenty of calories. One tactic is to alternate alcoholic drinks with zero-calorie beverages throughout the day. Remember that too much alcohol can lead to increased hunger.

Score Points With Guests

If you're the party host, do your fellow fans a favor by making sure your buffet includes plenty of healthy offerings such as:

  • Fresh fruit, sliced or in salads or kabobs
  • Assorted vegetables with low-fat dips and salsas
  • Low-fat snacks such as popcorn, pretzels, and baked chips
  • Lean meats and seafood and low-fat cheeses
  • Whole-grain breads and crackers
  • Salads made with light dressings
  • Salsas, wraps, salads, or stews made with fiber-filled and high-protein beans

Touchdown Tips for Food Safety

According to the American Dietetic Association, the average sports fan partakes in tailgating five times during a football season. And according to a recent survey, most tailgaters take unnecessary food-poisoning risks. Food is often kept at temperatures that promote bacterial contamination. Many tailgaters also recycle pre-game picnic food to eat again after the game.

Follow these guidelines to keep your food out of the danger zone:

  • Make sure foods that will be served cold are cold before you put them in the cooler.
  • Don't use a cooler that's too large. A full cooler will keep foods cold longer.
  • Carefully package raw meat. Put it in the bottom of the cooler to avoid drips and cross-contamination
  • Pack coolers just before you leave for the game, and use ice packs to maintain temperatures.
  • Use a thermometer in your cooler to be sure foods stay at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Keep coolers out of the sun, perhaps under a tree.
  • Bring waterless hand sanitizer or moistened towelettes to keep hands clean.
  • Bring a meat thermometer to ensure that burgers and brats are cooked to 160 degrees and chicken breasts to 170 degrees.
  • Throw away any perishable foods that are left from your pre-game picnic so no one will be tempted to eat them after the game.
  • Do not leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours. In hot weather (90 degrees or above), the time limit is one hour.

These guidelines aren't intended just for those on the traveling team; follow them even if you're enjoying the showdown from your living room. When you're equipped with a plan for healthy eating, your tailgate (or television) party can be a success all the way to the final whistle.

Three cheers for your favorite team!

Originally published Oct. 14, 2004
Medically updated Oct. 7, 2005.


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