Be the one to bring a healthy option, like baked chicken wings, the next time you get together with friends for a tailgate party.

I grew up in a football town — Gate City, Virginia, to be exact. If you’ve ever watched Friday Night Lights (my hands-down all-time favorite show), you’ve seen a pretty accurate portrayal of a small, football-centered town and upbringing ... well, minus the fact that it was set in Texas and unfortunately there was no Tim Riggins walking my halls. Before I left the esteemed halls of GCHS, it had three state championship titles under its belt. Today it has five. It’s also second only to Hampton High School for the most appearances in the Virginia High School League state playoffs. I didn’t venture too far from home after high school, heading to Emory and Henry. While football wasn’t burning up the record books when I was there, they sure knew how to tailgate. It can be hard to make healthy choices while tailgating. Throw in alcohol for many, chips, dip and wings and you’ve burned through that hard-earned progress you made during the week, often in the amount of time it takes the Vols to lose a game (sorry Vols fans ... but man they’ve struggled for so long).

While I’m not going to tell you to sip water and munch on cucumbers at your next tailgate, I am going to provide some healthier tips and choices when it comes to food and drinks, and maybe even throw in a recipe.

Tried-and-true tips and tricks follow.

Make healthier choices prior to heading out to your favorite tailgate or party. Skipping breakfast or lunch so you can enjoy the assortment of salty and fried choices at the game is not the way to go. Going to any sort of party or event famished, telling yourself you are saving up for later is not a good idea. Do you ever find yourself filling up on something that isn’t even that exciting, such as chips and salsa because you’re famished? Eating a snack or well-balanced meal (relative to the time of the game) is never a bad idea. Kind of like going to the grocery store hungry and leaving as the proud owner of aisle three.

Drinking on an empty stomach is no bueno. Most tailgates, or especially here in the south where college football is king, are mid-day/get started fairly early. Why not partake in a bowl of filling, hearty and healthy oats? Rolled oats (super economical, too) made with skim milk, almond milk or your favorite unsweetened non-dairy beverage, topped with either a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter for staying power, and some fresh fruit is not only a healthy choice but will also keep you full longer.

Be the one to bring a healthy option. I preach this all the time to clients during holidays. By doing this you know there is at least one item you can enjoy without guilt.

Instead of chips and queso, why not bring fresh veggies, pita wedges and hummus? For those of you giving me side-eye for mentioning hummus, what about fresh veggies and a healthier homemade ranch made with Greek yogurt? Turkey dogs instead of beef or bratwursts? A regular old beef hot dog, while certainly not my favorite choice for you and one that should be a limited choice as well, has around 180 calories and 15 grams of fat. A turkey hot dog is under 100 calories and less than 5 grams of fat. It’s even better if you choose a brand like Applegate, free of nitrates and weird additives.

Did you know a traditional pork bratwurst, not even taking into account the bun and condiments, will set you back over 250 calories and nearly 25 grams of fat?! Thank you, next.

Cocktail time! Light beer or a wine spritzer is a much better choice than a sugary mixed drink, endless glass of wine or a heavy craft brew beer. No matter what you’re drinking, keep it to a one-to-two drink limit, always making sure to hydrate before and throughout the day.

Most of you have heard the tip to alternate every drink with a glass of water. Listen up, that’s a smart one. Not only does it slow you down and keep your calorie intake down as well, it also helps keep you accountable and making good healthy decisions throughout the day. Lots of alcohol (even light beers) plus a hot and humid fall day in the south can create a nasty recipe for dehydration.

What if you make it into the stadium, realize you’re starving, and you didn’t smuggle in a healthy option? It seems like these days some of the setups on the tailgate field are much nicer than watching the game from inside. Tents, deluxe RVs, 70-inch flat screen under the shade. Can’t say I blame you. I always make sure to keep a Kind bar, Larabar or small baggie of nuts and dried fruit at the bottom of my purse for emergencies such as this. The prices alone once in the stadium are enough to keep me away from the concession stand. Besides, I’ve worked a few concession stands in my day on behalf of young love, and believe me, you don’t want to know what they do to that cheese sauce.

If only popcorn or peanuts will do, share a bag of in-the-shell, unsalted peanuts. The healthy fats will fill you up, plus you have to work a little to free those little gems, so it naturally slows you down. If popcorn is calling your name, make sure you say no thanks on the added, melted butter — and don’t you dare add any salt to this already sodium filled treat. With either of these salty snacks make sure to share. Both, when eaten solo, can pack quite the calorie punch. Avoid the nachos, large soft pretzel dipped in salt with cheese sauce and soft drinks.

Other healthy swaps: baked chips instead of regular, whole wheat buns, mustard over mayo, if indulging in wings remove the skin, or better yet, if grilled chicken is an option choose it. If you’re hosting or happen to be the one in charge of wings why not try baked? I’m including a baked recipe below.

Time out for a recipe. As much as I love plant-based living, I’m not going to suggest that you make the leap from fried chicken wings to buffalo cauliflower bites. While I love a good, crispy buffalo style cauliflower bite I also from time to time love some wings and fried pickles.

A small step/tweak you can try that I promise packs all the flavor and punch of fried wings is baking them (saving you hundreds of calories and a substantial amount of fat). This recipe from Popsugar Fitness — a great website for free recipes, workouts and more — is yummy and even includes a healthier yet tasty blue cheese dressing option.


From Popsugar Fitness

Serves 6

3 pounds drumettes and wings

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon butter

6 sprigs fresh thyme

10 garlic cloves, crushed

3/4 cup hot sauce


1 cup low-fat Greek yogurt

1/2 cup blue cheese crumbles

Scallions, to garnish

Preheat oven to 375°F, and lightly grease an oven-proof pan. In a large bowl, generously season drumettes and wings with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

In a sauté pan over low heat, melt butter (I love Earth Balance, a plant-based butter spread). Add thyme and garlic and allow to simmer for 3 minutes. Once thyme and garlic become aromatic, add hot sauce and stir.

Pour entire mixture over chicken and toss to coat. Allow wings to marinate in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine blue cheese and low-fat Greek yogurt in a small bowl. Mix well and refrigerate.

Transfer chicken to oven-proof baking dish and place in oven. Bake for 30 minutes; with tongs or a fork, flip and baste wings. Bake for 25 minutes more, occasionally basting wings while they’re in the oven.

Remove pan from oven and allow wings to slightly cool in pan. Baste with juices and serve with blue cheese dip.

This recipe comes in at 377 calories per serving and less than 18 grams of fat.

In the words of the great John Ward, “It’s football time in Tennessee!”

Jessica Barnett is a Southwest Virginia girl married to a Greeneville native, a mom, personal trainer, certified fitness nutrition specialist, runner, herbivore and ice cream lover. Love Your Health is published every other Wednesday in Greene County’s Accent.