At the risk of nutritionists and foodies attacking me, allow me a moment to suggest an alternative to thinking about balanced meals.
Back when the US Department of Agriculture changed the (often funded by the meat and dairy lobbyists) Four Basic Food Groups into the confusing Food Pyramid, with all its baffling revisions that followed, it seemed to me that there had to be a more elegant solution. Even before I had kids to fight with over balanced eating habits, the artist in me came to the conclusion that the answer could be reduced to a question of color.
Eat three colors at every meal.
Really, that’s basically the answer. If you can get three different colors (natural colors, mind you) with every meal, you shouldn’t have to think about cholesterol or fats or sugars or whether you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals. Of course, it’s easy to fudge (mm, fudge!) colors with processed foods (Cheetos are orange! Kool-Aid is red!) so a simple amendment can take care of that without too much of a change:
Eat three colors at every meal, two of them natural
Now, I’m sure people will quibble over definitions of what to call foods that change color when cooked – Is beef red or brown? Is chicken pink or white? Is lobster red or white? Are red potatoes considered red? Are green apples white? – but here’s the thing; call them what you want but stay consistent. In the end there aren’t that many ways to get around the three color rule, and it pretty much assures you that over the course of a day you’ll get what you need nutritionally.
As for the question of processing I’m basically saying that’s anything you can heat and serve that’s been mechanically altered from the way you would buy it in its raw state. Raw chicken is not processed but chicken fingers are. Potatoes are not processed but frozen potato wedges are. Canned tomatoes… ah, well, I guess technically they are processed, but you wouldn’t heat and serve them straight, so I say they’re unprocessed but jarred pasta sauce is processed. So if I were to serve pasta with sauce, I’d have to make the sauce myself (using canned tomatoes and fresh vegetables) in order to avoid two processed foods in one meal.
And then there’s cheese. Earlier this year I discovered how easy it was to make my own goat cheese from unpasteurized goat’s milk and cheese ceased to be a mystery. It probably should be something I consider a processed food, but I can’t. It’s cheese. So while I actively know that I’m breaking my own rules when I use it, the best that I can do is minimize cheese during meals and make sure I use only the most natural cheeses I can find.
The only thing left is to define meals. We’ve somehow developed this notion that there are three times of day to eat, and we augment that with this idea of “between meal snacking” which is good or bad, depending on what you believe. Personally, and for some complicated reasons that have to do with some sleep studies I did decades ago, I think our bodies work better with measured, smaller meals every three hours. I’m not going to say I don’t enjoy big traditional dinners, hearty breakfasts, or hofbrau buffet luncheons, but I also have come to realize that I’m not as happy about them an hour or two later when they make me feel like a mammoth banana slug.
This does tend to mess with the idea of three colors at every meal when a “meal” in the formal sense may only happen once or twice a day. So between these meals, as long as I’m not prioritizing processed foods – An apple and peanut butter. Chips with homemade salsa. Homemade pickles with cheese (yes, I’ll eat these together in mini sandwich form as a snack) – it’s all good.
In his book In Defense of Food Michael Pollen’s maxim is Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. This admittedly is simpler than my own rules, but sounds a little too much like a zen koan and isn’t as easy a “sell” to kids or people who might get caught up in the definition of “food” and how much was “too much.” Try giving Pollan’s advice to a kid and see what they make of it. Three colors, on the other hand, that challenges people to put some thought into what they’re eating. For kids, it can become a game of trying to find combinations of foods they like, it promotes experimentation. I know that it’s helped me not only in meal planning but in my own kitchen experiments.
What prompted all this? I was visiting a friend’s blog which she illustrated with a photo of a cafeteria lunch. On the tray: chicken nuggets w/ bbq sauce, tater tots, an orange, a chocolate chip cookie, a carton of milk. Five items on the tray, three of them processed, all but the milk in the orange to tan spectrum. If the chicken had been grilled (no processing), or there were green beans instead of the tots (color and less processing), maybe this would have passed the test. The problem with the orange, as any kid will tell you, is that oranges and milk at the same meal don’t work which means one (or both) will get ignored. I’d go with grapes instead.
Now, imagine the two trays side by side, the original next to mine with the substitutions. Which one looks more appealing, more inviting in terms of color? That’s the thing, if we train kids to look for and expect meals to be balanced in terms of colors they’d become disappointed by monochromatic meals. If we train ourselves to seek out colors and less processing we probably wouldn’t need diet books or impossible to decipher pyramidal infographics.
Three colors. That’s all it takes.