From Pyramid to Plate

The USDA's new food guide makes healthy eating easier.



Sometime around 1992, kids all over the U.S. came home from school and informed their parents they should be eating more noodles. At least according to the USDA Food Guide Pyramid. So for the next decade and a half, dishes like pasta primavera, long on carbs but bright with vegetables, festooned American dinner plates. Though our government farm bulletins had been making nutritional recommendations as far back as 1894, the 1992 pyramid represented a real change in emphasis. It sought not only to promote dietary diversity, but also to persuade Americans to eat more of some foods and less of others.

The pyramid has reigned for almost 20 years, but its decline was hastened by a 2005 update, which sought to work the concept of physical activity into the graphic while reshuffling food groups. Some pastas and breads were now supposed to be whole-grain, and the cheese on our pizzas low-fat. Though a USDA website provided information, some of it was complicated and inaccessible to many people who most needed help.

Fewer carbs, more fruits

Now, the pyramid’s been dismantled, replaced by MyPlate, the new graphic representation of the recommendations of 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Shaped like a dish, with half of its area taken up by fruits and vegetables, it’s much easier to teach and understand. It’s taken a full-bore obesity crisis to compel the USDA to advocate filling family plates with fruits and vegetables, while cutting sugar and sodium. This advice counters years of plates anchored by meat and starch, garnished with vegetables.  

You have to ask, won’t this all just change again soon? Fortunately, behind the change there’s always been some common sense, and the buzz on this update is very positive. Even Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, has given a thumbs-up to the USDA-DHHS Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report behind MyPlate. “As with previous Dietary Guidelines, both politics and science underlie this report. The science components of this report are stunning — as good as such things get — and make this document an invaluable resource.”  

Putting guidelines into practice

Verdis McNutt, a nutritionist at the Shelby County Health Department, has been using the guidelines and supplementary materials in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program since 2009. She likes the fact that the plate graphic is colorful, and makes portion sizes and the proportions of food groups comprehensible. Many other local service providers are just getting briefed on implementing the new guidelines. For them, how it will work in practical terms is not yet clear. However, Karen Harrell, vice president of early childhood services at Porter-Leath, which provides hot meals to its Head Start students, feels optimistic.

“I was really excited about the new logo and the accessibility of the information,” she wrote in an email interview. The choosemyplate.gov “website is very user-friendly and offers a lot of support and educational material.” More importantly, she foresees positive health outcomes for her clients. “This policy I think will have a long-term impact on the families we serve by teaching them to make healthier choices.”

Although these guidelines come down from the federal government, they play out locally. Instruction in planning, budgeting, and cooking is one of the most important forms of assistance agencies like Porter-Leath and WIC can give. In the current economic climate, budgets are tight, and eating more vegetables and whole grains can seem expensive, elitist, or just too hard. The art of feeding a family, which used to be passed down from parents to their children, has gotten lost in the scramble to keep up with work schedules. But something’s got to give, right? The cost of failure is too high.

McNutt recommends getting kids involved in growing and prepping food, either at home or through community gardens. She also reminds me that we parents teach our kids by how we eat. I know all too well that eating more whole grains (but fewer carbs overall), fruits and vegetables will be an adjustment for many families. However, I’d rather make the shift now, feeding my kids this way and modeling it for them, than see them hit their 40s and have to learn how to eat all over again.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make it all up by ourselves: we can share ideas with friends, scan cooking magazines and blogs, throw a potluck. Even the folks at USDA have a few good ideas. This salad pairs nicely with Zesty Tomato Soup, also featured at choosemyplate.gov/downloads/MyPlate/recipes.pdf.

Bulgur Chickpea Salad

(adapted from USDA’s MyPlate.gov)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 1⁄4 cups water
  • 1 cup coarse bulgur
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2-4 chopped green onions, to taste
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup raisins
  • ½ cup shredded carrots
  • ¾ cup canned or cooked chickpeas,
  •     drained and rinsed

Dressing:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Black pepper to taste

Preparation:

1. In a medium saucepan, bring water to boil. Stir in bulgur, salt, and soy sauce. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer 15-20 minutes (until all water is absorbed and bulgur is not too crunchy). Do not overcook.
2. Remove from heat and allow to cool; fluff.
3. Combine dressing ingredients; stir well.
4. Put bulgur mixture in a large bowl. Pour dressing over bulgur mixture and mix well.
5. Stir in green onions, parsley, raisins, carrots, and chickpeas. Cover and chill for several
    hours. Taste and correct seasonings before
    serving.

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