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.

Seven-Layer Dip
  • 1 avocado, halved and pitted
  • 1 cup shelled English peas or shelled edamame; if frozen, there’s no need to defrost
  • Juice of 1 lime, divided
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can low-sodium pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 teaspoon ground dried red chiles
  • 1 cup store-bought chunky salsa
  • 1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
  • 1/2 cup 0% skyr or yogurt
  • 1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chiles
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated cheddar cheese
  • 4 green onions, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 tomato, cored, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeno finely diced, or to taste
  • Place the avocado, peas and half of the lime juice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Season with salt and pepper. Process the guacamole until smooth. Spoon the guacamole into an 8-by-8 glass casserole dish and spread into a layer.
  • Add the beans, ground chiles and remaining half of the lime juice to the processor bowl (as long as you scraped out most of the avocado into the casserole dish, it is OK if the bowl is a little bit dirty). Pulse until smooth. Using a spatula, place the puree on top of the guacamole to make the second layer.
  • Pour the salsa over the puree for the third layer.
  • In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and yogurt. Spoon the sour cream mixture on top of the salsa for the fourth layer.
  • Pour over the chopped chiles for the fifth layer. Top with grated cheese and chopped green onions for the sixth layer, then finish with chopped tomatoes and jalapeno for the seventh. Serve immediately. Serves 24.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 1/4-cup serving: 67 calories (percent of calories from fat, 40), 3 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 3 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 4 milligrams cholesterol, 140 milligrams sodium.

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.

Makeover Spinach and Artichoke Dip
  • 1 (12-ounce) package chopped frozen spinach, thawed and well drained
  • 1 (12-ounce) jar artichoke hearts in water
  • 1 carrot, peeled and grated
  • 2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup light sour cream
  • 1/3 cup 0% skyr or yogurt
  • 1/4 cup light mayonnaise
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
  • Hot sauce, to taste
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Place an oven rack in the center position. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a medium ovenproof baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
  • In a mixing bowl, combine the spinach, artichoke hearts, carrot, garlic, sour cream, yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon zest and juice, and 1/4 cup grated cheese. Add hot sauce to taste and season with salt and pepper.
  • Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread to an even thickness. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/4 cup grated cheese. Transfer to the oven and bake until the top browns and the dip heats through, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 16.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 2-tablespoon serving: 59 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 3 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 3 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 113 milligrams sodium.

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.

BBQ Meatballs
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onion
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1/2 cup cooked quinoa
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups reduced-sugar and -fat barbecue sauce such as Primal Kitchen Organic & Unsweetened BBQ Sauce or Annie’s Organic Original BBQ Sauce
  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a nonstick silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Set aside. Place the onions in a ramekin or microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium power until soft and translucent, about 25 seconds. Set aside to cool slightly.
  • In a large bowl, combine the turkey, onions, quinoa, parsley and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine with a rubber spatula. (To taste and adjust for seasoning, simply cook a teaspoon or so of the mixture in the microwave.)
  • To form the meatballs, using a 1/2-ounce ice cream scoop or a tablespoon measure, scoop out the meat mixture and roll into a ball about the size of a gumball. Place onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all the meat mixture is used up.
  • Transfer to the oven and cook until firm and the temperature reaches 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. (Meatballs can be made ahead up to this point and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)
  • Just prior to serving, warm the barbecue sauce in a saucepot over low heat. Using a spatula, transfer the meatballs to the pot of sauce. Stir to combine. (If meatballs were made in advance and refrigerated, keep in barbecue sauce until warmed through.) Serve with toothpicks or skewers. Makes 32 meatballs.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per meatball: 41 calories (percent of calories from fat, 22), 3 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), 10 milligrams cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium.

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.

Chocolate Swirl Brownies
  • 4 ounces Neufchatel or reduced-fat cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature, divided
  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup (6 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
  • Combine the cream cheese, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla in a medium bowl. Separate 1 of the eggs, reserving the white for later use, and add the yolk to the cream cheese mixture. Stir until creamy and smooth with a spatula or hand-held mixer. Set aside.
  • In a second medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 cup sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside.
  • In a third medium bowl, heat the oil and chocolate in the microwave, until melted. Pour the chocolate over the dry ingredients. Add the buttermilk, applesauce, remaining teaspoon vanilla, remaining whole egg, and the reserved egg white. Stir to combine. Transfer the brownie batter to the prepared pan.
  • Using a tablespoon, drop 9 dollops of the cream cheese mixture on top of the brownie batter. Draw the tip of a sharp knife or skewer through the 2 batters in a crisscross fashion to create a swirled effect.
  • Bake the brownies about 40 minutes, until the top is just firm to the touch, rotating halfway through baking. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
  • Coat a serrated knife with nonstick cooking spray and cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes 16 (2-inch) square brownies.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per brownie: 183 calories (percent of calories from fat, 39), 3 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 8 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 27 milligrams cholesterol, 134 milligrams sodium.

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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