By Elisa Zied

In her New York Times article, "Dietary Report Card Disappoints," Jane Brody discusses findings by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group, that show we are making progress—but have a long way to go—when it comes to eating in America.

In their 'report card' on The Changing American Diet, referred to as 'one you wouldn't want to post on your fridge,' CSPI analyzed food consumption data collected between 1970 and 2010. On the plus side, the report found that while intake of total fats and oils continue to climb, we're successfully reducing intake of artery-clogging trans and saturated fats. We're drinking less whole milk and eating less beef (although the report suggests we could afford to bump up our intake of nonfat and low-fat milk, white meat, and seafood). Despite the strides we've made, the report shows that on average we consume 450 more calories daily than we did in 1970—a trend that's no doubt linked with the dramatic rise in incidence of both obesity and type 2 diabetes among adults and children alike. We continue to skimp on fruits and vegetables. We overdo grains—especially refined ones (made with white flour)—and under consume whole grains. And we love full-fat cheese and sugary foods like sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages and candy just a little too much, according to the report.

In preparation for the third annual Food Day—a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and grassroots campaign to for better food policies—organizers of the event as well as CSPI created a simple online 14-question quiz. Designed to help Americans move closer towards a more healthful diet that can benefit individuals—and the planet—the quiz grades the health, animal welfare, and environmental impact of your diet based on typical weekly servings of various foods. Those who take the quiz are given a number and letter grade and are encouraged to share their score on Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness about one's diet and its impact on the environment and to excite others to do the same.

If you and your family take the quiz and realize your diets fall short, you're not alone. Only a fraction of Americans meet current Dietary Guidelines for Americans daily food group recommendations. The good news is that you and your kids can improve your intake over time and inch closer to meet—and not exceed—daily quotas for key food groups at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time by following these five simple food rules:

1.    Have fruits or veggies each time you eat. Including even a few slices of tomato or lettuce on a sandwich, throwing a handful of berries on low fat yogurt, dipping a few slices of sweet peppers into hummus or guacamole, or noshing on a few baby carrots or some cucumber slices before dinner really add up. Take your kids to farmers markets and buy produce in season when possible. If you choose to opt for organic options, you can refer to the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to see which purchases make the most sense for your family.

2.    Start with whole grains. Have a simple breakfast that includes 1/2 to 1 cup oatmeal or whole grain ready-to-eat cereal, a toasted slice or two of whole wheat bread or a whole wheat English muffin, or 1-2 whole grain waffles or pancakes (you can make these ahead of time, freeze, and pop in the microwave for a quick and easy breakfast). For a snack, pop some popcorn in a touch of canola oil, top whole grain crackers with one slice of cheese or 1 Tablespoon natural peanut or almond butter, or mix 1-2 tablespoons each whole grain, low sugar cereal, dried fruit, and nuts or seeds for a hearty snack. For dinner, choose small portions of brown or wild rice (both whole grains) over white rice (or combine whole grain and refined grain options if taste is an issue), or have whole wheat pasta. Think of these as accompaniments rather than the focal point of the meal.

3.    Do dairy right. Opt for low fat and nonfat milk, yogurt, and cheese often (organic if you choose). If your child is used to or prefers the taste of whole or reduced fat milk, combining either with nonfat milk can ease the transition. If you don't like the taste or texture of low fat or nonfat cheese (I know I don't), use small amounts of shredded cheddar (a little goes a long way) to add taste and flavor to whole wheat pasta dishes, fajitas or quesadillas (made with whole wheat flour tortillas). Make your own pizza with less shredded mozzarella and more fresh vegetables (lightly sautéed if preferred) and skinless white meat poultry.

4.    Go fish. We all skimp on fish, so let's up our intake by replacing one to two red meat or poultry meals weekly with fish. Find options that are deemed good for you and good for the oceans according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Prepare fish in a way kids will enjoy (how about tacos, fajitas or quesadillas, or a casserole or pasta dish made with tuna or salmon)? You can also use whole grain cereal flakes or even some panko (a refined grain, yes, but you don't need to use very much) to coat the fish to make delicious baked dishes.

5.    Save your sweets. If you really want a sweet treat, make sure to plan for it at the end of a meal or snack. You'll be less likely to overdo it if you don't have it in-between meals or when you're starved. You may even find you have little or no room for it—or may even desire it less—at the end of the meal if you save it for then. You can, of course, choose your usual candy or other treats, or try options made with 100% real ingredients like Unreal Candy.** Be sure to keep portions very small to leave enough room for wholesome, nutrient-packed foods. And whatever you do, don't forget that fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit is one of the most naturally sweet and satisfying treats, so be sure to have them on hand and grab them first!

*Young or less active kids may require 1.5 to 2 whole grains daily depending on individual food patterns—see Appendix 7 in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

**I  received samples of Unreal Candy by the manufacturer.

Image of take the quiz message on keyboard via Shutterstock.

How do you teach your kids to eat better for their health—and that of the planet?



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