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What To Feed Your Kid (And Yourself)

USDA Food Pyramid

Courtesy of MyPlate

I was never a big fan of the USDA Food Pyramid. Too complicated. I'm a nutrition editor, and if I didn't want to measure out my kid's portions, I'm reasonably sure that other moms weren't weighing their child's food either. So I was psyched (in a nutrition geeky sort of way) to hear that the USDA was retiring the Pyramid in favor of something simpler.

In early June, Michelle Obama unveiled the new MyPlate approach, shown here. It reminds me of one of those cute sectioned plates you can pick up at Target or Pottery Barn Kids. The difference is, the USDA's plate is divided into sections for four food groups, with veggies getting the most space. Then there's a cup off to the side to represent dairy.

Before I saw the new icon, I promised myself that I wouldn't rush to judgment. I needed to, well, eat on it. So last night, my family and I had the dinner I planned earlier in the week: grilled chicken wraps, salad, and watermelon. We tried to match up our portions with the new USDA's plate. Our verdict: The plate is simple. Maybe a little too simple. I ran the snags we encountered by Parents nutrition advisor, Elisa Zied, R.D., a mom of two boys and author of So What Can I Eat?

MyPlate Problem: We didn't use all the food groups. My daughter had milk at school lunch, and yogurt for a snack so we did water with dinner. We didn't put cheese on the wrap either so our meal was dairy-free.

Solve It: "It's ambitious for any family to have five food groups at one meal," says Zied. Since the MyPlate approach doesn't address munchies, it's fine to move one or two of the food groups to snacktime.

MyPlate Problem: I don't serve salad on a plate. It took me three years and a lot of croutons, but I finally have a kid who likes almost any kind of salad. We eat it almost every night -- in a bowl. When I put our usual amount on the plate, it was spilling into the other sections. But if we had a denser veggie like carrots, the veggie portion of the MyPlate icon would seem ambitious to say the least.

Solve It: "The message is not to get hung up on measuring out food or even literally using a plate," says Zied. "Just ask yourself, 'Is half of what your kid eats everyday a fruit or a vegetable?' That's what you're striving for."

MyPlate Problem: Um, where's the Ranch dressing fit? A lot of kids (including mine!) like to dip their veggies -- and practically everyone wants some kind of dressing on their salad. This plate seems fat-free.

Solve It: "You don't need to give up fats in moderation even though they're not depicted in the icon," says Zied. A tablespoon or two of dressing (made from healthy fats like canola or olive oil) is perfectly fine to go with the veggies. What's more, a small dessert per day is okay too. "The government wants to emphasize healthy foods," says Zied. "But even in a nutritious diet, there's still room for one small treat, like a little piece of chocolate or a cookie."

MyPlate Problem: It's hard to make sense of mixed foods. We placed the ingredients for our wraps on the plate (folding the tortillas) and then put them together. But some other mixed foods like peanut butter & jelly sandwich (protein, fat, grains) or chicken rice soup (protein, grains, and vegetables) are trickier to deconstruct.

Solve It: "This approach has its limits," says Zied. "For simplicity, we're trading some preciseness." Don't drive yourself crazy trying to categorize every dish, she says. Instead, focus on feeding your kid a variety of nutritious, real foods from each of the groups. Now, that sounds delicious to me.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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