You couldn’t pick up a newspaper or log onto a news site last week without at least glimpsing a picture of the Department of Agriculture’s new healthy-eating icon, a simple plate replacing the more complicated food pyramid. The plate is dominated by vegetables, fruit and grains, with protein taking up the smallest portion and dairy in a little round afterthought of a cup off to the side.
Healthy-food advocates, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and nationally known and oft-quoted nutritionist Marion Nestle, lauded the symbol, although Nestle had a quibble with the “protein” section, which means meat to most people but is actually a nutrient rather than a food group. Just as many restaurants, chefs , food bloggers and journalists have come to do, the government is using the term “protein” as shorthand for the group formerly known as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts. Maybe it needs a shorter name, given that it’s the smallest section of the plate, although the food group still typically takes the place of honor in many restaurant recipes.
MyPlate comes with some basic, commonsense advice, starting with “Enjoy your food, but eat less,” which has historically not been a common trend at restaurants, where consumers feel cheated unless chefs fill the plate.
Time will tell whether the symbol has any effect on the way consumers eat, but will it affect the dishes they’re served at restaurants? Chains nationwide have already been modifying recipes and menus to cut calories, fat and salt to prepare for upcoming calorie-posting requirements. And celebrity chefs including Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck have made a concerted effort in recent years to make create flavorful plates that look more like MyPlate by emphasizing vegetables and making the meat – or fish or fowl or tofu – a side dish.
But in general and with the exception of some increasingly creative salad menus, it seems most changes made by restaurants to create healthier dishes have to do with cutting fat, salt and sugar without drastically altering the makeup of what’s on the plate. “Protein” or pasta is still the star, while veggies and fruit play a supporting role. In fact, sometimes they make a mere walk-on appearance as a garnish.
Do any dishes in your restaurant resemble MyPlate, or can guests customize them to fit more closely with government recommendations? Are you working on reformatting any menu items to reflect the symbol? Tell us about it in the comments.