Now that we’re a month into the new year, you’ve probably cleared your cabinets of holiday favorites to make room for better, more nutritious fare. Great job! But there’s always a reason to eat junk, right? Just as we start to declutter from the holiday feast-fest and get back to normal, the Big Football Game — you know the one we’re talking about — comes charging in to derail our progress.
Stores start stocking chips, dips, sweets and drinks all in the name of party planning. Whether you’re into football or just like to see where all those millions of dollars in ad spending go, you’re bound to wind up at a viewing party (or hosting one) that’s filled with all the foods you swore off this month.
An occasional splurge isn’t cause for despair, but there’s no need to ditch your new healthy lifestyle entirely. You can cheer on your favorite team without going into a food coma. And we’re not talking veggies (though a tray of fresh produce is always a winner). We’re talking healthier versions of classic game day snacks. Looking to lighten up your party fare? Here are six healthier snack subs for your super football party.
If nachos aren’t layered with meat and dripping with melty cheese, are they even nachos? Well, yeah. The key to subbing in more nutritious foods is to think of how to enhance, not eliminate, the less-than-desirable options. Take nachos for example. There are so many ways to make nachos lighter without taking away their essential “snack” appeal. Consider:
- Replacing fat-heavy ground beef with “extra lean” ground beef or even ground turkey, or skipping meat altogether in favor of black beans
- Using real cheese that you shred from a block instead of processed cheese product
- Swapping sour cream for nonfat Greek yogurt (it tastes the same, has no fat and packs a powerful protein punch)
- Loading up the toppings bar with fresh produce, like jalapenos, tomatoes, lettuce, onions and cilantro
You can also build a better base with more nutrient-dense chips. Look for whole grain varieties of your favorite brand, and opt for chips with as few added ingredients, sodium and sugar as possible. The more you can pronounce and understand about the label, the better.
Loaded with bacon, cheese and sour cream, potato skins are party favorites for a reason. But the same rules apply here as with the nachos. Enhance, don’t eliminate. Instead of topping your skins with a dollop of sour cream, use nonfat Greek yogurt for all the tang without any of the downsides.
Go easy on the salt that you add to the potatoes, and use fresh cheese that you shred yourself. This is partly because off-the-block cheese tastes better but also because you’re more likely to monitor your intake if you have to shred it yourself. (It’s easy to dump too much cheese on your food if you can grab a pre-shredded handful from the bag.)
And as for the bacon? Who isn’t a fan of bacon? Just go light on this topping, too. A little bacon goes a long way, especially when you’re eating other heavy snacks throughout the game. If you want to add more flavor, top your potatoes with fresh herbs and spices.
Cereal and popcorn-based mixes can be very good or very bad for you depending on what you put in them. On the surface, a popcorn-based mix is a healthier option because as a whole grain, popcorn makes for a filling and nutritious snack (if it’s unsalted and unbuttered). But few people like plain popcorn, so the trick is to be smart about what you cover it with.
We’re not generally fans of artificial flavoring. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it — that science has proven to date — but the more natural, whole foods that you can put in your body, the better. But if you’re trying to trim some saturated fat on game day, consider using an artificial butter flavoring for your popcorn, as long as it doesn’t include extra salt and sugar. Olive oil and a few scant pinches of sea salt are better options if you’re popping the corn yourself (and you should).
For cereal-based mixes, lean in on the unsalted seasonings with fresh herbs and spices. Salt might make everything taste better, but it’s also got some hefty downsides. Use lower-sodium options where possible, like with Worcestershire and soy sauces, and choose cereals without a lot of added ingredients and preservatives.
To make these snack mixes a little more nutritious, use whole, unsalted or lightly salted nuts and lower-sodium or unsalted pretzels. There’s enough flavor in your seasonings and sauces to compensate for lower-sodium mix-ins, so cut the salt where you can. Too much sodium can make you feel bloated, so lowering the salt content of your food may help you enjoy your party more, too.
Chicken wings are surprisingly adaptable if you make them yourself. Instead of deep-frying them in oil and a thick coating of breading, try a smoked or baked variety. The skin is where most of the flavor is, but it’s also the unhealthy part. To cut down on how much unhealthy fat you’re getting with your wings, use saltless seasonings — pepper, garlic powder, cumin, cayenne, onion powder and paprika are all flavorful options — and just a small amount of olive oil to rub down your wings. Then bake in the oven until crisp. If you have an outdoor grill, you can use different methods to smoke the wings instead, which will impart a lot of flavor without the need for excess salt and fat.
Looking for inspiration or specific instructions? Check out this list from Fitness Magazine on “guilt-free” chicken wings. Remember to pick sauces without a lot of added ingredients, too, especially sugar. Prepackaged sauces tend to be loaded with sugar, so pay attention to labels if you go the store-bought route.
Dips are a universally beloved snack food for their ease and crowd-friendly portions. Fortunately, you can lighten up your dips without sacrificing flavor. You won’t even notice some changes. Consider:
- Making your own guacamole using fresh, ripe avocados, lemon juice, cilantro and other fresh herbs and seasonings
- Making salsa from a variety of whole ingredients: tomatoes, jalapenos, onions (white and red), black beans, corn and freshly chopped herbs and spices — even fruits, like cantaloupe, mango, watermelon and strawberries, can be nutritious and tasty additions to your salsa
- Subbing nonfat Greek yogurt for sour cream in recipes that call for it — all the taste, more protein and no unhealthy fats
Dips can be fully customizable, too, if you make them from scratch and include fresh, whole ingredients. You can even make a lighter version of classic French onion dip. When possible, opt for homemade over store-bought foods, which are loaded with salt and sugar. You can control what you put into the food you make.
We told you up front that we wouldn’t recommend platters of produce as an alternative to game day snacking, and we’ll hold to that. But we do want to start off our sweets recommendations by suggesting fruit kebabs as a complement to your dessert table. Portable, delicious and good for you, fruit kebabs are both adult- and kid-friendly treats that can be customized to your tastes.
Other than fruit, there are lots of ways to make desserts a bit more nutritious (or at least a bit less terrible for you). Consider these sweet ideas:
- Healthier strawberry shortcakes
- Protein-packed cheesecake bites
- Edible cookie dough dip
- Chocolate-covered pretzels
- Sneaky black bean brownies
Keep in mind that you don’t need to go over-the-top. Set up a frozen yogurt bar with fresh fruit as toppings, or if you’ve already got your grill fired up for smoking chicken wings, leave it on and grill up some pineapple or peaches. (Grilling transforms fruit into something truly special.) Get creative but keep it simple.
Not in the mood or don’t have time to make everything from scratch? Read your labels carefully. Choose snacks with as little added salt and sugar as possible, and check the serving size. You may find that your favorite frozen chicken wings have twice the amount of sodium that you thought because it was hiding behind confusing serving size language.
It’s okay to splurge on junk from time to time, but there’s no need to abandon your healthier lifestyle altogether. And the best part? Making more nutritious swaps doesn’t have to come at the expense of your tastebuds.