March is National Nutrition Month, and this year's theme is "Get Your Plate in Shape," referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent campaign, Choose My Plate, or My Plate.
The initiative advocates organizing your plate so it is at least half vegetables and fruits and one quarter each of grains and protein, with low-fat dairy on the side. My Plate is a simplified version of My Pyramid, which was released about six years ago. While both advocate a very similar eating pattern, the plate is an easier way to visualize what a healthy diet should look like.
The easiest way to adopt My Plate is by taking a few small steps. If you feel your household has a ways to go toward reaching My Plate standards, you can start by serving all food groups for at least one meal a day. Dinner is usually our largest meal and the time we gather with family or friends, so I will use that as an example.
If you make too many adjustments at once, it can be hard to maintain the change, so start with a dinner you would already typically serve, such as pizza and wings. The food may feature some tomato sauce and cheese, but pizza is mostly crust, so it would count as a grain on your plate. If you are filling only one quarter of your plate with pizza, that would probably equal just one slice, which will leave you hungry if you are not eating something else, too. Because the wings should fill only another quarter of the plate, you would probably get two or three. That leaves you with another half of your plate to fill. Start adding vegetables — maybe carrots and celery sticks — to fill another quarter and then pineapple rings for the remaining fruit portion.
I assume everyone is aware that pizza and wings are not considered a top choice nutritionally, but by adding the vegetables and fruits, the portion of pizza and wings would be substantially reduced. Fruits and vegetables are naturally lower in calories and fat than most grain and meat choices while being high in fiber and vitamins, making a pizza night much more nutritious. An average slice of cheese pizza usually has at least 300 calories, whereas the cup of celery and carrot sticks, replacing that extra slice, has fewer than 50 calories. Even using a low-fat dip would not add as many calories as a slice of pizza. As a bonus, a cup of vegetables should be filling enough to prevent you from going back for the second slice.
If you are already generally following this plan, try to challenge yourself to improve the choices you are making within each food group. The USDA has guidelines for each food group that can help improve your overall nutrition.
▶ Grains: Make at least half of your grains whole. Try replacing some of your refined-grain choices with whole-grain choices. Examples include brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and bread, and whole-grain cereal.
▶ Vegetables: Vary your veggies. Make sure your vegetable selection includes a variety of colors. Broccoli, carrots and tomatoes provide color in a familiar and easy-to-introduce way. For something different, try spinach or kale, sweet potatoes and bell peppers.
▶ Fruit: Focus on fruit. While 100 percent juice does count as a fruit selection (8 ounces equals 1 cup of fruit), it does not contain fiber and has more calories than most fruit selections. Try eating more fresh, frozen, dried and canned (in juice) fruit with meals and for snacks.
▶ Dairy: Get your calcium-rich foods. Eat low-fat dairy, such as 1 percent or skim milk and low-fat or fat-free yogurt. Cheese tends to be higher in fat, so limit your portions ( " cup of shredded cheese equals 1 cup of milk). If you have lactose intolerance, try yogurt or lactose-free products that can be easier to digest, or skip cow's milk altogether and drink calcium-fortified beverages, such as soy milk.
▶ Protein: Go lean with protein. Use beans as your protein source at least occasionally, as they are a great source of fiber and are very lean. Nuts, seeds and fish may have more fat, but usually unsaturated fats, including Omega 3 fatty acids. When choosing beef, pork and poultry, buy leaner cuts and trim off fat and skin.
For more ideas, visit the My Plate website at www.choosemyplate.gov. You'll find many tips for improving your diet as well as tools to help track and rate what you are eating. And as always, you can contact your local extension office for help from a nutrition educator.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.