Top Tips to Tackle Your Tailgate

Jack Purdom
Stronger U Coach

Whether you’re attending Friday night high school games, reliving your college days by cheering on your alma mater on Saturdays, or gearing up for NFL Sundays, they all hold one thing in common—tailgates. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting down with some wings on the comfort of your own couch or braving the elements to grill up some goodness, food and football go together. And when you’re also trying to manage your nutrition with a weight loss goal in mind, these can be hard weekends to navigate.

Luckily, we’ve got you covered. 

Check out the game plan below to script a successful tailgate from the first whistle all the way through the final seconds of the game.

First Quarter: Perfecting Your Pregame Ritual

Similar to your favorite athletes practicing throughout the week to optimize their performance come game time, you’ll need to increase your chances of executing your gameplan with proper pre-tailgate preparation.

The three keys here are going to be volume, protein, and hydration.

Volume and Protein

Tailgates are notorious for having an abundance of delicious food that is high in calories. Choosing foods high in physical volume and protein beforehand is the key to minimizing calories, sparing carbs/fats for later, and keeping your stomach full to avoid entering a tricky food environment while hungry.

To do this, we want more nutrient-dense and fewer calorie-dense food options. Focusing on filling your stomach with non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and lean protein will make you physically full while leaving plenty of calories for later. An example of a breakfast and lunch you could use are below.

Breakfast:

  • 1c egg whites
  • chopped peppers/onions
  • 200g berries OR 40g oatmeal with skim milk/water
  • Black coffee and/or water

Lunch:

  • Large bowl of preferred salad greens and other veggies
  • 4-8oz chicken breast, fish, shrimp, any lean protein
  • Bolthouse or any low fat/fat-free dressing
  • More water

Hydration

The other key to your pregame will be ensuring that you’ve got plenty of water in your system. Not only does this help with keeping you full, but it will also be beneficial with helping your body process the different amounts and types of food you eat later, in addition to any alcohol consumed.

Start early with a glass of water upon waking, make sure to have a glass or two with any food, and keep a water bottle on you throughout the day.

Second Quarter: Gametime Grub

Even if the game on the field hasn’t started yet, yours has once you enter the minefield of a tailgating food environment. It can feel overwhelming to be surrounded by so many delicious options that are probably not a regular part of your diet, so don’t worry if your plan doesn’t go perfectly the first few times. This is going to take practice.

These temptations can still be enjoyed within reason, but it’ll take some strategic planning to accomplish this. 

Choose Carefully

Tracking macros allows for you to work in some of your favorite foods, but not ALL of those foods at once or AS MUCH of those foods as you’d like. So when it comes to selecting your indulgences, be very picky what foods/snacks/desserts are truly worth it that day and remember there will always be another tailgate to have the things you missed out on this time. A good rule of thumb is to aim to create one plate’s worth of food and thoroughly enjoy it. Chew slowly, have plenty of water in between, and focus on enjoying the company you’re spending time with.

However, sometimes you may be in a position where you want a little more control over your food and the available options are unknown or less than ideal. In that case, your best bet is to make something to share so that you’re guaranteed one solid option.

Our former food dude, Mason Woodruff, has some great options on his Pinterest board.

Prioritize Protein

Yes, protein is so crucially important to your success and normally lacking in a traditional tailgate day that it’s getting mentioned in both the first and second quarter.

Remember that “one plate rule” mentioned above? A good way to maximize your tailgate day nutrition is to aim for half of that plate to be primarily protein. Since veggies and other healthier side options are typically non-existent, protein is going to be your best bet at turning off those hunger signals as early as possible.

Not all protein sources are created equal, so be sure to balance the protein on your plate based on the carbs/fats associated with it. If you’ve got a burger or brat that’s already pretty high in fat, maybe go bunless. If there’s chicken or pork available, load up on that lean meat so you can spend your “macro money” on delicious side/dessert items.

Manage Munching

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of tailgate nutrition is the sheer amount of time spent in an environment with delicious foods that everyone else will be devouring. If you’re sitting around for a couple of hours before the game starts with your best friends laughing and conversing, you might not even notice that you’ve eaten half the bowl of chips (with dip) in the last couple hours.

The two best strategies here are to quite literally position yourself for success and have some munching alternatives on hand.

To sit or stand within arm’s reach of highly palatable (and caloric) foods is to invite dietary disaster. Be conscious of how close you’re standing to the food once you’ve finished your plate and be prepared to physically relocate if you notice yourself spending too much time going hand to mouth while engrossed in conversation.

An easy way to sidestep eating an accidental extra few hundred calories is to bring a replacement that allows you to continue chewing without blowing your day or feeling terrible the next day. Things like carrots, cucumbers, peppers, and zucchini work very well to allow you to stay in munch mode and keep your day intact from a caloric standpoint. So, either be the person who brings that unexciting (but super helpful) veggies tray or pack up a few Ziploc baggies with your go-to alternative snack!

Halftime

We’ve played the first half and things are going well, but this is where things are about to get tricky. The other team is bringing out their big guns for the second half…

It’s time to talk about alcohol.

Third Quarter: Allowing for Alcohol

Alcohol can be a tough thing to fit in any weight loss plan on a regular day, and that makes it potentially even more troublesome on a day that is known for well-stocked coolers and pitchers of cocktails. 

The key is to have a plan—and whether the goal of that plan includes choosing a specific number of drinks or abstaining entirely, you’ll need some helpful guidelines.

Best Choices

Any alcoholic beverage is going to contain calories—this is because alcohol itself contains calories and can be thought of as a “fourth macro” that doesn’t factor into your daily targets. However, you can make more optimal decisions on your alcoholic beverages based on how it’s made and what else you add to the drink.

The graphic below shows that light beer (or a hard seltzer) and liquor are both tracked as 10C/10F and 130 calories compared to wine (15C/10F, 150 calories) and craft beer/cocktail (35C/10F, 230 calories). Choosing a light beer or liquor with a zero-calorie mixer will yield the lowest macro total and allow you to perhaps plan for multiple drinks or use more macros for food.

Replacements

If you are looking to replace some or all of your usual tailgate drinks with non-alcoholic options, then you’ll need to bring some replacement beverages that will allow you to still feel like part of the tailgate and make it an easier habit transition on your brain.

Club soda works well here at keeping calories in line while also avoiding the ever-annoying questions of why you’re not drinking. Seltzers like La Croix or diet sodas are great options to add a bit of taste as well. 

Additionally, you could get festive with it and create some mocktails to share with the group.

Water

Another theme that we’re revisiting here is the importance of staying hydrated if you’re opting for a drink or two. You should already have a head start by following the pregame plan of a few glasses leading up to the event, but make sure that you follow each alcoholic beverage with at least one bottle of water as well so your body will have an easier time processing the toxins and you’ll be less likely to make alcohol-impaired food decisions.

Fourth Quarter: Postgame Planning

The game may have finished, but your day is not done quite yet.

A major skill of any successful tailgater is to be able to pick the positive momentum right back up and not let different eating/drinking patterns derail you long term. This is done by ensuring your plan for the return trip home and the next day are solidly in place.

The Night Of

You’re on the way home from the big game. You’re exhausted from a long day of cheering and trying to stay warm. You’ve probably eaten a little more than usual and made different food choices than usual so your body’s hormones will be altered. You may have also indulged in a few alcoholic beverages and your inhibitions could be slightly lowered.

All of these factors combined could spell potential disaster for a late night trip to the drive thru or a splurge in the pantry once you get back—we’ve all been there.

That’s why it’s critically important to know what the plan is for your evening. You can use some of those “munchie replacement” foods from above to have something to eat or you can choose to take Mike’s famous advice of having a pillow sandwich instead. Either way, make sure you are firm in your plan to close the kitchen and avoid fast food options. (and get right to bed!)

The Next Day

This day should already be planned in MyFitnessPal with PLENTY of high-volume foods as those pesky hormones will likely mean extra hunger and fatigue the day after tailgating.

Rather than aiming to intentionally undershoot your targets which might seem the logical choice, aim to hit your targets as usual today to avoid creating a bigger deficit on a day you may be facing a bigger hunger monster than usual. Include plenty of water and work in a nap if possible.

Overtime: Reviewing the Tape

The most useful part of having a plan to enjoy your day is the experience you gain while executing from start to finish—and whether things went perfectly according to plan or nothing happened as you expected, there is still a lot to benefit from for the future.

Follow this framework for assessing each event and you’ll gain more and more confidence in each successive tailgate (and other social events):

Expectation based on your plan, what are your expected outcomes for this tailgate? How you plan to eat and drink, what you will feel like during/after, any scale impact, etc

Event – how well did you execute the plan? What went wrong? What was easier than you thought?

Result – did your actions yield the expected results?

Takeaway – if so, what can you add to future events to produce similar results? If not, what were the main obstacles and how will you plan to approach them differently next time?

That’s it—you’re now a victorious tailgater!

Let’s hope your team fares just as well…

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