RECIPES: For lower-fat tailgating, try this game plan

During football season, tailgating is practically a sport in itself. And regardless of which team you cheer for, tailgating is one tradition that all fans love. While there’s certainly tailgating at the NFL level, college football and tailgating have become so intertwined, it’s nearly impossible to consider one without the other. Tailgating combines football, fellowship and food — it’s the ultimate fan experience.

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The term “tailgate” originated with the back gate of the pickup truck being used as all-in-one prep area, seating area, dinner buffet and bar. Old-school tailgates still mean arriving to a parking lot early on game day and whipping out a few folding canvas chairs, a pop-up tent, and a portable grill — along with the obligatory cooler of alcoholic beverages — to set up “camp” for an outdoor feast of eating, drinking and making hazy memories.

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Nowadays, “setting up camp” at some schools (looking at you, SEC) can mean being a member of a tailgate club. Forget the grill and camp chairs. These clubs offer elaborate catered buffets, full bars, seating areas with cushioned sofas in front of oversized flat-screen TVs and air-conditioned, flushable portable toilets!

Not surprisingly, there are also “turnkey tailgate solution companies” that provide setup, cleanup, catering, customization, and even on-site concierge service. And, while it’s not truly the same, the term tailgate has also come to effectively mean noshing on game-day food on your back deck or in your front yard as a party or a potluck.

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While the definition of the term tailgate has altered and grown, certain foods are identified with tailgating. Menus are mostly fun finger food or “one-utensil” dishes that are easy to eat standing up. Sips, dips and chips accompany wings, chili, burgers, brats and barbecue. The trouble is, the only clear loser on game day is the waistline.

Tailgate food is notoriously indulgent by design. Whether you are a die-hard fan or just enjoy the camaraderie, everyone knows tailgate food is often deep-fried, cheese-covered and slathered in mayonnaise. And anyone that’s been to a tailgate knows how important it is to balance the beer and booze with sustenance, or you won’t make it to kickoff. The setting and experience lends itself to hearty dishes. It’s not the time for salads and smoothies.

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With that in mind, I’ve reworked some traditional tailgate recipes to be healthier, but I promise you won’t miss the fat. The Seven-Layer Dip wins with more vegetables and less fat; the Makeover Spinach and Artichoke Dip is rich and creamy, but not greasy like many versions of this classic recipe; and I round out the savory nibbles with BBQ Meatballs, which use the whole-grain superfood quinoa instead of breadcrumbs. And the game plan is complete with the Chocolate Swirl Brownies because, much like our affinity for tailgating, everyone loves chocolate no matter who you are cheering for.

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When tailgating, try to offer light nibbles and snacks, and foods prepared with health-minded ingredients.

  • Serve chips for the dip, but also offer baby carrots, celery sticks and cucumber slices.
  • There’s a lot of mindless snacking due to nervous energy. Popcorn, which is whole grain, scores higher in nutrition than fried potato and corn chips.
  • Sub out ground turkey or chicken for ground beef with burgers, sliders and meatballs, like with my BBQ Meatballs.
  • As for those hot dogs and brats, go for leaner versions like chicken apple sausages or turkey kielbasa. You can also try serving them in different ways, such as on a skewer with onions and peppers. Who doesn’t like food on a stick?
  • Mayonnaise is a star player in many tailgate dips and dishes. Make sure to use a lighter version and replace half of it with skyr or yogurt, both lower in fat. Given the number of flavors and ingredients in most of the dishes, you won’t be able to taste the difference.
  • Tailgate sweets are often hand-held cookies, brownies and bars. Offer a fruit platter or bowls of berries, too.
  • While revamping recipes is one way to earn points on game day, don’t forget to practice basic healthy eating habits, too. Try to stay inbounds with portion control and make it a rule to drink a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage.


You’ll be the MVP with these tailgate makeovers that are bold with flavor and lean on fat. Seven-Layer Dip, Makeover Spinach and Artichoke Dip, BBQ Meatballs, and Chocolate Swirl Brownies are certain to become team favorites.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Seven-Layer Dip

Seven-layer dip is one of those decadent, delicious dips that render folks senseless. Before you know it, you find your willpower has gone way south of the border. Don’t tell anyone this is a healthier version, and I promise they will never know.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Makeover Spinach and Artichoke Dip

My version of this fan favorite is rich and creamy without excess fat and calories. My secret for dealing with mayonnaise is to use half light mayonnaise and half reduced-fat skyr or yogurt. Want to save time? Assemble up to two days ahead and bake just before serving.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

BBQ Meatballs

Meatballs are always a popular tailgate hors d’oeuvre and can also be easily made ahead and reheated. In this version, I sub the super grain quinoa in place of breadcrumbs, and leaner ground turkey for the traditional beef.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Chocolate Swirl Brownies

These are dark, rich, knock-your-socks-off chocolate brownies. No one will ever know they are reduced fat, reduced sugar, and made with whole-wheat grains. Make sure to have a selection of fresh fruit on the dessert buffet such as cherries, grapes and berries.

Virginia Willis is an Atlanta-based Food Network Kitchen chef, James Beard Award-winning food writer and cookbook author. Follow her at

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