The food at football stadiums — and the lengthy tailgate parties that precede games — is notoriously heavy. But beyond the traditional pizza, wings and burgers, there are plenty of delicious, healthy options that won’t leave you feeling sidelined by halftime.
Here are 10 dietitian-approved tips to help you find (and bring) healthier eats to any game. Take a page from the experts’ playbook whether you’re partying before an NFL or college matchup or bringing snacks to your kid’s weekend scrimmage.
Mandy Unanski Enright, MS, RDN, is a New York Giants fan, but her husband cheers on the Philadelphia Eagles. They attend NFL games often but rarely eat in the stadium. “Tailgating saves a lot of money, and we can fill up on a nice variety of foods including fresh fruits and veggies — not just all the meats.”
“It’s time to elevate tailgating,” says Kristin Koskinen, RD. In lieu of traditional burgers and hot dogs with refined flour buns, she suggests opting for kabobs made with grass-fed beef or pastured chicken and vegetables. “You can enjoy the delights of outdoor cooking without overdoing it on processed meats.”
Enright tailgates with the same types of meals she grills at home, usually some type of chicken or seafood dish, she says. “Think about the healthy recipes you make at home and bring a slow cooker full of chili or stew,” she suggests.
Whether or not your tailgates involve alcohol, drinking water is a good tactic to prevent overdoing it. “I always, always carry around a water bottle with me,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RD. “So if I find myself feeling the urge to snack when I’m not hungry, I’ll take a sip of water. I also like to bring along cans of fruit-flavored seltzer and have a glass in between any alcoholic beverages.”
Rich, heavy dips regularly turn up on tailgate tables. But instead of simply bringing chips to accompany them, add fresh crudités to the spread. “If the veggies are there, people will snack on them,” says Kerry Clifford, MS, RD. Always put your portion on a plate “instead of just constantly eating from the dip bowl,” Enright says.
“Those go down really quickly,” says Enright. Instead, she recommends choosing full-flavored or craft beers. “They take more time to drink versus the light beers, which might make you feel more satisfied after just one,” she says. (No matter what you choose, alternate with water and know your limits.)
“No game day is complete without brisket,” says Texas-based dietitian Sarah Ryan, MS, RD, director of the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics-Southeast Region. Rather than loading a plate with the rich, smoky meat, she fills a baked potato with a small portion, along with onions and cheese. “Baked potatoes keep me satisfied and energized as I watch my favorite team take home the win,” says Ryan. Load sweet or white potatoes with burger fixings, chili and your region’s specialty for a fun, filling tailgate.
Gorin loves to keep in-shell pistachios on hand for healthy tailgating. “Shelling the nuts takes a little while, so I can eat them slowly and perhaps eat less,” she says. Koskinen also likes harder-to-eat snacks, including edamame in pods.
You can get a burger or pizza anytime. Instead, opt for a stadium’s unique offerings. Indulgent dishes get more attention, but “there is definitely a movement toward having healthier options at stadiums,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, who’s based in New York City. Lauren Manaker, MS, echoes this: “Along with the traditional football food, in Miami I can get some amazing sushi or a piece of wild salmon.”
Football games can last three hours, plus the time you spend tailgating. You’ll need a game plan for the day, says Koskinen, who recommends periodically stepping away from the food to prevent grazing and taking a walk around the tailgating area every hour.