Children’s hosts expert panel to discuss USDA dietary recommendations

This was my breakfast last Friday.

As a black coffee and dry toast kind of guy, I have to admit I was skeptical when I first laid eyes on the plate. Roasted red peppers, kale sautéed in garlic and olive oil, black beans, cheese and smoked salmon isn’t exactly my traditional 8 AM fare.

But after a few bites I was sold; at some point it seems my tastes had changed without me knowing, which I was about to learn was a very good thing.

“When it comes to food, it’s OK to break the rules,” said award winning chef and famed restaurateur Jody Adams, as she addressed a packed house of nutritionists, medical professionals and community leaders who gathered at Children’s Hospital Boston to discuss the USDA’s current dietary guidelines and new MyPlate icon.

“In fact, if we are going to be successful in our mission to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in this country, more than a few rules are going to have to be broken. We need to change the way we think about a lot of foods,” she said.

Adams, along with Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and senior policy advisory for Healthy Food Initiatives at the White House,  spoke Friday morning at Step Up to the Plate, a panel discussion hosted by the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital. In addition to Kass and Adams, the panel included Boston Public Health Commission Director Barbara Ferrer PhD, MPH, MEd , Cara Ebbeling, PhD, Associate Director of Research and Training at the Center and Eric Rimm, ScD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard; each bringing a unique vision about how the USDA’s dietary guidelines can be utilized to help American kids eat and live better.

As a recognized leader in the fight against childhood obesity, Center director David Ludwig, MD, PhD, was the esteemed host of the event, but the real star of the show was MyPlate, the color-coded icon that recently replaced the Food Pyramid as the government’s visual representation of a balanced diet.

“MyPlate is a key component of what First Lady Michelle Obama is trying to do with the Let’s Move campaign,” Kass says. “One of the pillars of our goal to better serve the community is empowering parents with the information they need to make the best choices for their families. MyPlate is a simple tool or guide that can help them do just that.”

But healthy eating is a daily balancing act, and too complex a task to be fully expressed with a single image. Kass, Adams and their Step Up to the Plate colleagues stressed that MyPlate was a good starting point for parents looking to feed their families better, but to be truly successful it takes commitment, a willingness to learn and a little creativity.

When using MyPlate as a guide, Ludwig and his team suggest stocking up on foods like vegetables, fruits, beans and whole, minimally processed grains because they have a low glycemic index (GI). Foods with a low GI have carbohydrates that break down slowly, gradually releasing glucose into the bloodstream, which makes the eater feel full for a longer period of time.

Here are a few more key points the speakers made that parents should remember when using MyPlate to plan their own menus.

Vegetables. There are so many varieties of vegetables grown in the world, but far too many people stick only to the classics. When filling the vegetable portion of your children’s plates, try to incorporate new types and cooking methods. The variety will help kids avoid ‘veggie fatigue’ and they may even find a new favorite. (For instance, did you know that roasting almost any vegetable often brings out their natural sugar and adds a little sweetness? Kids that hate sautéed Brussels sprouts or cauliflower may love them roasted.) As a rule, dark green vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli provide the most nutrients so use them often, and try to limit overly starchy foods like pumpkin, potatoes or corn, which should be considered more of a grain than a vegetable.

Protein.  Go lean with protein! When meeting a child’s protein quota, parents are wise to pick lean options like chicken, seafood or turkey over red meat. Also, don’t forget that meat is not the only food with protein in it. Soy, beans, peas, cheese and many other vegetarian options contain plenty of protein; try incorporating them into your meals as you would meats. To limit the amount of saturated fat in your child’s diet, it’s recommended that they get no more than two servings of red meat a week.

Dairy. Milk is the undisputed king of healthy drinks at many family dinner tables. And while milk is an excellent source of calcium and vitamins A and D, not all milk is created equal in terms of health benefits. As a rule kids should drink low fat or 1% milk, and if they are struggling with weight it’s suggested they have no more than three servings a day. Contrary to popular belief, milk is NOT essential to a healthy diet for toddlers and older children. Kids can receive their dairy requirements from cheeses or naturally sweetened yogurts, and calcium from leafy greens. In most cases water is a healthy substitute for milk.

Not all grain products are the same. Whole grains are a healthier option than refined grain products

Grain. At least half of all grains that you serve your children should be of the whole grain, non-refined variety, like brown rice, traditional steel-cut oats, or stone-ground breads. Though they technically fall into the grain category, white bread, sugary breakfast cereals and most processed snacks are packed with refined carbohydrates that promote weight gain and increase risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Fruit. Like its cousin the vegetable, fruit gets a lot more respect and prominence in the MyPlate era. Together fruits and vegetables should cover half of the plate at every one of your child’s meals, so serving a wide variety is going to be important in keeping kids interested. Take advantage of fruits’ naturally bright colors and many shapes, which are often intriguing to young eaters. Also, just because a bottle of fruit juice has a picture of an apple or grape on the label, doesn’t mean it has the same nutritional value as whole fruit. For the most part, commercial fruit juices marketed to children have more sugar and preservatives than health benefits and should be given to kids sparingly.

In the end, Step Up to the Plate reminded me that getting kids to eat better should be thought of as a marathon, not a race. Instilling better eating habits in kids takes time, practice and endurance. There will be fights about junk food, wrinkled noses and furrowed brows when you offer new things and maybe even a tantrum or two. It may not always be easy, but as Ludwig and his Step up to the Plate colleagues are quick to remind us, if you’re patient, stick to your guns and model the right eating behaviors for your family, the kids will come around. Who knows? They may even thank you for it one day.


Dr. Ludwig is Children’s obesity expert and considered a pioneer in the fight against childhood obesity because of his innovative approach to obesity treatment and prevention. From soda taxes to questioning whether or not the state has a right to intervene in the care of severely obese children, Dr. Ludwig is at the forefront of the national discussion about the obesity epidemic. To learn more about his work please visit the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital website.