Speed Date the Food But Play Hard to Get: Strategies for Choosing Healthier Foods At the Fair

7 strategies for enjoy the fair's food without derailing your diet.

(HealthCastle.com) “Speed date the buffet but play hard to get”.  This was advice that my dietitian colleague Crystal McGregor offered for navigating buffets during holiday gatherings.  This is brilliant advice and can be applied when you go to any carnival, fair, or in this case, the Calgary Stampede. 

Foods at the fair tend to be deep fried and less than healthful.  The food experience at the Calgary Stampede includes the following “foods” that have been deep fried: French fries, bubble gum, butter, avocado, pie, pickled beans, Doritos , (they are already deep fried, and then are deep fried again!) philly cheesesteak rollup, dessert fries, to name a few of their more outrageous and interesting food choices.  Other foods added to the line up are here.  

These foods, combined with alcohol and pancake breakfasts, or other local fair food traditions, can easily derail any fair-goer from a more healthful lifestyle.  One day at the fair is unlikely to totally derail your diet/lifestyle.  However, several days of eating at the fair might. 

In a previous post, I offered 11 nutrition and lifestyle tips for enjoying the fair.   This week, I had the opportunity to go down to Calgary’s local fair, the Calgary Stampede, with City TV’s Leah Sarich, to actually look at the various food choices and see what healthier options we could find.  We found lots of options and used several strategies to get the most of the fair’s food without derailing us from our healthier lifestyle:

7 Strategies to enjoy the fair's food without derailing you from your healtheir lifestyle:

1) "Speed Date" your Various Food Options:

  • We started by "speed dating" the different food options available to us (using dietitian Crystal McGregor's brilliant advice).  We talked to different food vendors and asked lots of questions about what the foods were and how they were prepared.  From this, we got a good sense of the different food choices and what foods might best fit with our own personal lifestyle goals. 

2) "Play hard to get"

  • After doing our initial speed date, we then played "hard to get".  Anything that is deep fried is going to be like a calorie bomb, so we chose to skip those choices. What factors would entice us to choose a particular food vendor?  Customization! 
  • Ask for what you want.  We found that all vendors were very open to customizing our food order.
  • Anything that has extra sauces, oil, sour cream, olives, bacon, breading, cheese, nuts, and chips are going to add in more calories.  We asked for less of these options, and replaced them with more vegetables and salsa.

3) Grab 2 forks! 

  • We downsized our portion and grabbed 2 forks, allowing us to share our food.  This strategy will allow you to try even more foods that are unique to your local fair. 

4) Focus on unique food experiences available only at your local fair

  • We skipped the foods we could try any time of the year.  We can find hot dogs and hamburgers at many food establishments throughout the year – we skipped those and focussed on foods that were unique to the fair. 

5) Avoid a food hangover - have at least one meal and snack that is nutritious. 

  • Filling up your entire day on deep fried and fair food will likely result in a nasty food hangover.  Avoid this by having at least one balanced meal that includes a whole grain carbohydrate, a vegetable/fruit and a protein.  Here are some breakfast ideas
  • Ideally, I would have this meal at home or, if you are traveling from out of town, I would head to the grocery store and buy, for example, a fruit, a small cheese plate, a single-serving of yogurt, an ounce of nuts and/or a carton of low fat milk.  Here are some other tips to eat and live well while traveling.  
  • Shift away from black and white, all or nothing thinking.  Go and enjoy the fair – the food is part of the experience but is not THE whole experience.

6) Drink mostly water. 

  • The fair grounds tend to get really hot, so focusing mostly on calorie-free liquids is your best bet for hydration.  Pack your water bottle to stay well watered!
  • We did find a lemonade stand, that, for a “small” 12 ounce serving, was just over 100 calories.  We also found that they had a lemonade option made with sucralose, allowing drinkers to enjoy the lemonade flavor without the carbohydrates, something that is important if you are monitoring your blood sugars.

7) Build in exercise to give you more flexibility in trying different foods. 

  • Simply walking around the fair will likely cover a lot of ground.  We took the C-train to get to the grounds so there was additional walking to and from our vehicles to the station to the grounds.
  • Other options include going for a run or bike prior to the fair. 

What did we end up choosing at our local fair?

1) Go Daddy’s Chicken Wrap

We asked for chicken to be cooked in half the oil, we added more vegetables, a small dollop of sour cream (we could have used even less), extra salsa and two forks.

2) Idaho Nacho Potato

We asked for half the ground beef, skipped the cheese sauce, extra vegetables and salsa, less shredded cheese, less black olives and a very small dollop of sour cream, and again, two forks.

3) Fro Yo Licious

We found frozen yogurt for dessert.  The nutritional profile of the different frozen yogurt flavours was 130 kcal/100 grams of the frozen yogurt.  We filled up our cup half way, and then elected for a fruit topping of fresh strawberries and (canned) pineapple.  We skipped the different candy and nut toppings, electing to save “room” for trying a different Calgary Stampede treat. 

Of course, there were other great options as well – the Salt Spring Noodle Bar and the Compadre Vending Food Truck, and others. 

Just remember, ask how the food is prepared, and then customize your order to whatever best suits your nutrition and lifestyle. 

While we ran out of time, I would have liked to have tried the bacon caramel apple – that combination of sweet, creamy, salty and crunchy would have been my choice for what to indulge in – and of course, I would have shared!

Written by Calgary dietitian Kristyn Hall MSc, RD, Dietitian and Director, HealthCastle Calgary

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