Why I quit cheat days (yes, even State Fair cheat days)

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As another Minnesota State Fair season kicks off, I’m tempted to finally address a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about: why I quit cheat days. Fair warning: this is a LONG post. So, if you just want to learn my tips for eating at the State Fair, just skip to the bottom.

I used to devote Sunday to eating whatever I wanted, while maintaining a pretty clean diet the rest of the week. Donuts? It’s Sunday. Margherita pizza? It’s Sunday. Wine? It’s Sunday. At first, I was giddy with the possibilities. But then, something unexpected happened: After I followed my whole-foods-during-the-week-diet for a while, I started waking up on Sundays and, inconveniently, not desiring the usual line-up of decadently processed Sunday treats. The truth is, my Sunday cheat day started to become a chore: I didn’t actually want that cupcake (I knew I’d feel groggy and bloated after), but I felt like today is my one and only chance, so I ate it and reaped the consequences anyway. I decided I didn’t like this pact I had made. It put my cheat day in the driver’s seat, not me, and I was just along for the ride.

So now, I’ve quit cheat days. While most people can get behind my reasons, the State Fair seems to illicit a totally different set of rules and expectations. Even local health gurus seem to say, “oh, except for the State Fair. We don’t touch the State Fair.” It’s almost as though fair food has achieved mythical, larger-than-life status. What is it about fair food that causes us to lose our collective minds, and are we cool with this uneven psychological response it provokes in us?

When I tell people that the last time I went to the State Fair, I walked around on a full belly from the meal I had beforehand, enjoyed an iced coffee while walking the fair grounds, and had an awesome time, they really can’t believe me. In fact, I think they pity me. I must have been depriving myself. I must have sulked past the funnel cakes longing a mouthful of powdery, oily magic. I must have found my black coffee so totally boring compared to the beer options I was leaving behind. I have an impossible time convincing a single soul that I actually felt, well, content.

The reality is, on some level, they’re right: one day of the year won’t make or break you. One day of eating whatever glorious flavor bomb you desire at the Fair won’t cause all of your weight loss progress to disintegrate overnight. But, this one day at the funhouse might be a mirror of the many micro-decisions you make throughout the year. Perhaps there’s something deeper at play here than just one day of fun.

Only you can decide if that pact is worth it to you. What works for me is dispelling the myth that fair food has some supernatural, psychic spell over me. It doesn’t. For me, fair food is just food. Once you take away its aura, it becomes a lot easier to make the decisions that make sense for you. So, while one day won’t make or break you, perhaps it’s worth exploring why fair food has such a powerful hold over us, and if we should all just be okay with that.

Now, with much, ah, fanfare, here are my top 10 tips for eating at the Fair:

  1. Decide when you’ll arrive, and, if possible, approximately when you’ll leave. The more unknown the time window, the more unknown the food choices will become. It’s kind of like not knowing if you should pack for a weekend getaway or a two-week vacation.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep the night before.
  3. Eat beforehand. Now, this does not mean “stuff your face beforehand so you won’t want to eat anything at the Fair.” This simply means, don’t arrive hungry.
  4. Eat a complete, nutrient-dense meal beforehand. A complete meal will include lean protein, healthy fats, vegetables, and a slow-digesting carb. This will keep you feeling full longer, provide a stable source of energy, and it will allow you to feel less guilt and anxiety while at the Fair. You started your day making great choices. Now work it!
  5. Research the food vendors. We’re lucky to be living in a State Fair foodie golden age. That means there are so many more high-quality, locally-sourced, organic options at the Fair nowadays than there were twenty or even five years ago. So, do some research! Figure out which vendors have options that are not only delicious but also align with your values and the way you like to eat.
  6. Rather than endlessly snacking on various foods at the Fair, considering eating an actual meal there, with some kind of protein at the center. I don’t know about you, but a turkey leg and grilled veggie skewer sounds pretty satisfying to me.
  7. If you still want a treat of the decadent variety, know that you can go for it (see also: you are an adult). Seriously. No judgement. This isn’t about making perfect choices. It’s just about making conscious ones.
  8. Consider a calorie-free beverage. I’m not going to elaborate on this today. Just…consider it. Alcohol aside, simply staying hydrated should not be a controversial point.
  9. Order what YOU want. Don’t feel obligated to eat a corndog just because your friend ordered a corndog. If you’re talking yourself out of ordering the food while you wait in line, that’s a pretty good indicator that that particular food just isn’t worth it to you. Figure out what your Worth It is. (Note: my iced coffee day at the Fair went like this: I kept my options open, enjoyed my coffee, and simply didn’t come across anything that felt worth it to me on that particular day. Maybe had I gone again the next day, I would have found something worth it. There’s no obligation or minimum standard here.)
  10. Stay connected with the non-food attractions at the Fair, too, and note that this also includes enjoying the company you’re with. Maybe it’s not the fair food that’s so important or compelling to us, but that feeling of connectedness in getting together.
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