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posted: 7/13/2011 3:00 PM

Spicing up your family's plate with MyPlate

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By Christina Fitzgerald

While you're cooking dinner and are torn between being referee and tutor to your kids, are images of the food guide pyramid dancing through your head?

Probably not.

For that very reason, on June 2, first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the new MyPlate icon to replace the outdated food guide pyramid design. MyPlate is not meant to disregard the principles of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines; instead it is an easier visual cue to help parents quickly prepare and serve balanced and nutritious meals.

Although the MyPlate icon does not specify exact portions, there are a couple key messages it presents:

•Enjoy your food, but eat less.

•Avoid oversized portions.

•Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

•Switch to fat-free or 1 percent milk.

•Make at least half your grains whole grains.

Not convinced? Wondering how this translates onto your kids' plates?

Let's look at a fairly common family dinner (spaghetti and meatballs) and lunch (PB&J), and see how they can be tweaked to align with MyPlate suggestions:

Spaghetti and Meatballs (MyPlate style)

1 cup whole grain pasta

2 meatballs, 1.5 oz each (1.5-inch round)

cup chunky marinara sauce

1 cup spinach salad with balsamic dressing, sliced strawberries, almonds

1-ounce slice lightly buttered garlic bread

1 cup milk

Note: If your kids won't eat salad, swap it out for roasted carrots and sliced fresh fruit.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich (MyPlate style)

2 slices of whole grain bread

1 tablespoon peanut butter

1 tablespoon fresh fruit jam

Carrots or other favorite veggie with 1 tablespoon hummus

Smoothie (Blend half of a 6-ounce container of low-fat yogurt, cup sliced fresh fruitm banana, fat-free milk till desired consistency.)

These are just two examples of how a plate can be balanced easily and nutritiously. However, as with any food model the USDA has produced in the past, MyPlate still has pitfalls. First, it is not realistic nor appetizing to have both fruits and vegetables at every meal and this may confuse kids when they are looking at the MyPlate icon.

Second, My Plate does not address the added fats in the meal and relies heavily on the general public to still refer back to the dietary guidelines.

Healthy fats are an important component in our diets, but a little goes a long way. Focus on low-fat cooking methods such as grilling, broiling, baking and stir-fry.

Olive and canola oils are great fats to use in cooking, but you can also be creative on flavoring your food by using garlic, lemon, pepper and spices.

Starting the nutrition discussion in your house early and often while you're grocery shopping, cooking and eating will help strengthen your kids understanding of healthy eating.

Art to start the discussion: Looking for a rainy day activity that is fun but also educational? Here you go! A new place mat that can help your kids eat healthier at every meal.

Start with a large piece of drawing paper and cut it to measure 14-by-19 inches.

On the paper, outline a plate, cup and fork. Referring to the MyPlate icon, use a marker to divide the plate into the recommended food groups.

Next, let your kids have fun! Hand the kids some crayons to draw their favorite fruits/veggies/grains/protein/dairy in the appropriate sections or hand them a disposable camera and take a trip to your local farmers market.

If you go the camera route, print the pictures and have the kids cut and glue them into the appropriate sections.

Finally, have them decorate the place mat with their favorite ways to stay healthy. Laminate and enjoy!

Contact me: If you have any questions or comments on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at Next month I'll share some delicious seasonal fruit and veggie smoothie recipes that can bump up your kids' nutrition this summer.

•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Northwest suburbs.