“Where’s the beef?” might have been a popular catchphrase in the ’80s, but in a world still dominated by Monster Thickburgers and prime-rib specials, it seems our meat-and-potatoes mindset really hasn’t changed all that much.
While the standard American diet has seen some improvements in the past 20 years, most of us are still getting the bulk of our calories from meats, starches, sugars and processed foods. We relegate nutritional essentials like fresh fruits, veggies and legumes to boring, obligatory or cameo roles. As a result, we take in more saturated and trans fats, refined carbs, and animal proteins than our bodies can comfortably handle. Meanwhile, our vitality suffers from a severe deficit of the critical nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, fiber and good fats.
These dietary imbalances are widely thought to be at the root of our collective challenges with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer – not to mention our country’s growing obesity problem. They’re also at the root of a great deal of unnecessary digestive distress – from heartburn and acid stomach to gas and constipation. Too much fat and tough-to-digest meat and cheese, combined with a serious lack of dietary fiber, water and live-food enzymes, makes for an unhappy GI tract. And slow or lackluster digestion can seriously impede the steady supply of energy most of us want and need from our meals throughout the day.
The good news is that many of us are waking up to the liabilities of the traditional (but nutritionally lopsided) dinner plate and starting to reconsider what we eat. The even better news is we don’t have to sacrifice satisfaction – or suffer deprivation.
“People always think in terms of giving up foods,” says Karen Collins, MS, RD, nutrition adviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) in Washington, D.C. But healthy eating doesn’t require us to think in all-or-nothing terms. “We just need to get more of the protective, plant-based foods,” says Collins.
To this end, AICR has launched the “New American Plate” initiative, which is a new way of eating for better health and healthy-weight maintenance. The New American Plate essentially reverses the traditional role of meat and veggies on the dinner plate; as a general rule of thumb, about two-thirds (or more) of the plate should be covered with plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, and one-third (or less) of the plate should be covered with meat, fish, poultry or dairy.
No, this is not some manifesto geared to make vegetarians and vegans out of the lot of us. As both Collins and Vegetarian Times editorial advisory board member Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD, point out, it’s quite easy to eat a hideously unhealthy vegetarian or vegan diet. (“Soft drinks and French fries are both vegetarian,” quips Havala Hobbs, who is also an assistant professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) It’s also entirely possible to enjoy the rich flavors and textures of meat, cheese and other nonplant dining pleasures as part of a largely plant-based diet. The key lies simply in reversing the traditional roles that meats and veggies have usually occupied on our plates. Best of all, the net culinary results can actually feel more indulgent and rewarding.
For example, instead of a hunk of poached chicken, a pile of mashed potatoes and a couple of lonely stalks of steamed asparagus tomorrow night, why not simmer up a pot of homemade white-bean-and-vegetable soup that starts with a smoky ham hock and ends with a dollop of spicy basil pesto on top? Instead of a hero sandwich that involves an entire mini-loaf of bread loaded with various deli meats, bland cheeses and just a token scattering of pale iceberg lettuce, how about a sandwich based on crunchy greens, roasted red peppers, a sautéed Portobello mushroom, and perhaps a few thin slices of prosciutto in a wheat-free tortilla? Or you could happily pile all those sandwich makings on one slice of sprouted whole-grain bread and eat it with a fork and knife.
Reversing the roles your food traditionally plays is not just about swapping portion sizes – it’s also about learning how to cook with flair and creativity, without sacrificing flavor and choice. That’s the idea at the heart of world-class chef Cary Neff’s “conscious cuisine,” a food philosophy he outlines in his book, Conscious Cuisine: A New Style of Cooking From the Kitchens of Chef Cary Neff (Sourcebooks, 2002). Neff, who was executive chef for eight years at the renowned Miraval Life In Balance Resort and Spa in Catalina, Ariz., as well as the architect of the resort’s famously scrumptious menu, isn’t a vegetarian, nor does he make strictly vegetarian food, but when he is planning a menu, he says, he first thinks in terms of nutrient-rich, plant-based foods like vegetables and whole-grain carbohydrates before he considers which protein should complement his meal.
“On a new menu I’m working on right now, I list the vegetables and grains first and the meat last,” he says. “For example, I have a dish called ‘Warm fava bean salad adorned with crisp sea bass’ and another named ‘Himalayan red rice pilaf, sautéed spinach and artichokes, and naturally raised loin of lamb.’ In both meals, the non-meat ingredients are bolded because I am trying to educate people about how to eat. I’m hoping they ask the waiter, ‘Hey, why is the fish or meat all the way down here?’ so the waiter can tell them that conscious cuisine is all about highlighting delicious seasonal ingredients that are packed with healthful nutrients.”
But you don’t have to go to a fancy spa or restaurant to practice culinary role reversals. By simply accentuating seasonal vegetables, fruits and herbs, and choosing whole grains and legumes over refined flours, you can eat in a way that supports both an optimal weight and a vital, disease-free life.
To help you out, we’ve taken a few old-style meals, had them reviewed by expert critics, and then updated them by giving the leading roles to fresh, nutritious and great-tasting foods that every part of your body can enjoy.
Former Stars: Pancakes, bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast, breakfast cereals, pastries and other heavy hitters.
Critic’s Review: What could be more American than heading to the pancake house for some hotcakes, crispy bacon, fried potatoes, a couple of over-easy eggs and some toast? Unfortunately, says Collins, this most all-American of breakfasts doesn’t give you much in the way of nutrients. It’s devoid of fresh fruits and veggies, and low in fiber and cancer-fighting phytochemicals. And like too many American breakfasts, it’s heavy on refined starches, sugars and unhealthy fats. It’s also hard on your metabolism and digestive system.
“The upside is that you have eggs, so that tides you over longer than, say, a doughnut. But that’s about the best I can say for this meal,” she says. Pancakes and toast (along with bagels, French toast, pastries and many other breakfast cornerstones) are made from grain, says Collins, but they are generally made from refined flours, which don’t have the fiber and phytochemicals found in whole-grain products. There are also way more servings of starch here – and more empty calories – than make sense at a single meal. To boot, we usually slather our pancakes with commercial “maple-flavored” sugar syrup, and our toast with sugary jam, which makes the breakfast even unhealthier.
Starchy hash browns are likely to contribute to the blood-sugar spike-‘n’-crash, and they’re generally fried in a lot of oil, which also makes them a calorie bomb. Restaurant breakfast foods are often cooked in unhealthy trans fats, and that margarine soaking through your toast is likely more of the same.
Don’t even get Collins started on the bacon. “There’s actually very little protein in bacon. Really, it’s just fat – saturated fat.” While they are now considered less dangerous than trans fats, saturated fats are eaten in excess by most Americans, to the detriment of their health.
Role Reversal: Loading up on fruits and veggies – without forgoing flavor – gives you the nutrients you need to start the day right. Using eggs as the basis for veggie-packed meals makes better use of their star potential.
Sure, eggs are nice by themselves, but they’re even better in an omelet with fresh herbs, chopped tomatoes, fresh spinach, mushrooms and other veggies. Instead of piling starches on the side and adding a sticky mass of American cheese, try tucking a few olive-oil-sautéed potato slices and a little goat cheese or aged Manchego inside. Or perhaps a dollop of sour cream. Craving your morning bacon? Simply crumble one piece on top instead of chowing down three or four à-la-carte strips. Add a side of avocado for some healthy monounsaturated fats and a creamy texture. Toast up a single slice of whole-grain bread, add a little nut butter, and you’re good to go.
More the milk-and-cereal type? Instead of dropping a few lonely slices of banana into a big bowl of cereal, top a bowl full of fresh berries with a half-cup of yogurt, a handful of whole-grain granola, and a crumble of raw pecans or walnuts. Add a teaspoon of flax oil for good measure. You’ll get a satisfying crunch, tons of nutrients, wake-up flavor and lasting energy.
Either way, without any sacrifice in sensory pleasure (and quite possibly a pleasure upgrade), you have a wonderful breakfast that is lower in unhealthy fats, sugars and calories, and higher in antioxidants, fiber and phytochemicals than most American breakfasts. And you’ll have started your day on the kind of healthy, whole-foods track that gets your body moving in the right direction.
Former Stars: Typical lunch entrées include pizza, sandwiches, pasta dishes and many so-called salads, all of which tend to deliver excess meat, cheese, saturated fat and sodium. Classic lunch “sides” like fries and breadsticks deliver little but fat, starch and empty calories.
Critic’s Review: Heavy meals like these require lots of digestive energy, diminishing your vitality and leaving you feeling sluggish for much of the afternoon. And even many apparently healthy options don’t pack as much nutritional punch as they could.
Let’s take the classic lunch of a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned tomato soup as an example. At first glance, you might think this production offers at least a grade-B cast of characters. It’s meat-free, and it even features a produce item (tomato) in a major supporting role. But on balance, says Havala Hobbs, this is not a great midday meal.
For one thing, too many Americans make their sandwiches with white bread and a heavy helping of processed, single-slice cheese. “You’re getting some calcium, protein and B vitamins,” says Havala Hobbs, “but in exchange you’re getting a hefty dose of saturated fat – and you’re probably frying that grilled sandwich in some butter or margarine, so that’s even more saturated and/or trans fats – plus lots of sodium and very little fiber.” The tomato soup is not a total loss, nutrientwise, she notes, but most commercial varieties are unnecessarily loaded with sodium, sugar and even refined flour.
You’ll find the same kind of lackluster performance with most deli sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, pasta dishes and, worth noting, many restaurant entrée salads. These are often piled so high with meat, cheese and fried items that you have to dig deep to find what little bland greenery and veggies they have to offer.
Brown-bagging it? This is generally a better option, but only if you’re selective. Keep in mind that frozen and heat-‘n’-serve lunch entrées vary widely in their nutritive value, so read the fine print on the nutrition label. Keep a close watch for hydrogenated oils, refined flours, sugars, chemical additives, and high sodium and calorie counts. Even many options with “lean and healthy” labels suffer from the same lack of character as their restaurant counterparts.
Role Reversal: Instead of depending on greasy meat, slab cheese, sugar and refined grains to carry the show, try borrowing a page from a Mediterranean lunch script by combining lots of fresh, crunchy and colorful vegetables; some lean protein, fish or legumes; and other flavorful tidbits into an entrée-size salad worthy of ovation.
Prewashed, organic mixed field greens and presliced veggies make it easy to throw together a quick and delicious salad. Havala Hobbs suggests a simple meal of toasted whole-wheat pita points and hummus, served with a substantial salad loaded with lettuce greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and green peppers, and topped off with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette.
If you’re not a fan of hummus, you might substitute a few sardines (olive-oil-packed are best), some smoked trout, a few ounces of grilled poultry or salmon, or a hard-boiled egg.
“This is a good example of a meal that is rich in protein, calcium and B vitamins, just like the grilled cheese and tomato soup,” she says, “but it’s nearly devoid of saturated fats, much lower in sodium, and it includes a substantial amount of fiber and phytochemicals not found in the other meal.” A meal like this will satisfy your taste buds – and give you a good store of afternoon energy.
Making a sandwich? Cast veggies (think tomato, cucumber, avocado, greens) as the main player. Then add just a sprinkle of grated cheese or some delicate strips or shavings of meat, as opposed to a thick blanketing of these heavier items.
Former Stars: Big chunks of meat, flanked by potatoes or pasta. A breadbasket standing by. Perhaps an afterthought salad (with blue-cheese dressing) or an obligatory vegetable on the side.
Critic’s Review: Traditionally, the steak dinner with all the fixings has been a real crowd pleaser. Unfortunately, as Chef Neff points out, the steak dinner (as traditionally conceived) is full of saturated fat, an excess of meat-based protein and too much low-nutrition starch. Notably absent: any meaningful showing of fresh veggies.
The typical baked potato is a giant, starchy affair that serves primarily as vehicle for butter, sour cream, salt – and perhaps even bacon bits. Likewise, the traditional American salad is usually a bunch of iceberg lettuce (far less nutrient-rich than other leafy greens), a few paltry slices of red onion and a lone cherry tomato or carrot curl, awash in a sea of creamy blue-cheese or ranch dressing (which may contain trans fats).
Nutritionally speaking, this is no way to end your day. For one thing, our experts note, the caloric density of this meat-, starch- and fat-heavy meal serves little purpose during the later hours of the evening – when most folks are relatively sedentary. And the paucity of available vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals leaves your body unprepared to do its best healing and regenerative work overnight.
While more people are choosing fish, poultry or pasta over red meat as a main course these days, says Neff, the typical American serving sizes (huge) and preparations (heavy) of those dishes remain problematic. And far too few of these meals give a varied cast of fresh, colorful vegetables the kind of center-stage time they deserve.
Role Reversal: You can still have that steak, says Neff; just reimagine it in a supporting (not starring) role. He encourages home cooks to try his trick of using meat more as a complement to meals – like a condiment, flavor enhancement or side dish. Instead of buying a bigger chunk of lesser-quality meat, consider selecting a smaller good-quality filet or sirloin, or a high-quality fish or seafood, and using less of it – say, 4 ounces instead of the usual 10 ounces.
But before you even get to the meat department, Neff suggests lingering in the produce aisle first and seeing what’s in season, and what looks and smells good. Pick up some fresh leafy greens and brightly colored veggies that you can serve raw as a first course. Choose some more substantial veggies (perhaps some squash, beets, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes or fennel) that you can roast in the oven. Consider some braising greens, asparagus, mushrooms or peppers that you can sauté in some heart-healthy oil (virgin cold-pressed canola for higher heat; olive for lower heat) with fresh herbs and spices.
Let your eyes and nose be your guides at the grocery store, Neff suggests, and be more spontaneous and experimental as you shop. Look to vegetarian, spa and ethnic cookbooks for creative flavor inspirations that take you beyond basic preparations. Let nut oils, garlic, ginger, curry, lemongrass, sesame, chili, oregano, thyme, basil and citrus introduce real excitement into your vegetable dishes. To add some heft to your dinner, you could serve a little wild-rice sauté, or a risotto with wild mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, shallots or other flavorful fare. And don’t forget legumes! Lentils, peas and beans can become a deliciously satisfying base or side at any meal – with or without meat in the mix.
Art of the Remake
Learning to shop, cook and eat along new lines takes a little practice and experimentation, but the rewards are well worth it. In fact, you’ll probably discover that by gradually embracing some basic role-reversal strategies, you can re-invent many of your old-favorite foods in ways that ignite your creativity, delight your senses and improve the state of your body.
One thing to be aware of: Recasting and rechoreographing your food in this way calls for some new staging strategies. When plating your role-reversed meals, resist the temptation to put now-smaller servings of meat and starch front and center, where they’re likely to look lonely and forlorn. Instead, arrange contrasting-color veggies in the center of the plate, place a modest but attractive serving of your starchier dish at its side or as a dollop on top, then fan out some thin slices of meat, fish or poultry next to that. Or garnish a plant-based dish (like a soup, salad, mixed-veggie grill or stir-fry) with delicate morsels of heavier foods that are meant to be enjoyed as accompaniments and ornaments to your main attraction – not as its base.
Paying more attention to the sensory appeal of your food and putting more creative attention into its arrangement has a secondary benefit, too: As you become more conscious of the unique and subtle characteristics of fresh plant-based foods, you’re likely to appreciate, enjoy and even crave them more. Over time, that can add up to a dramatic change in your eating habits, your relationship with your food, your health and even your body’s appearance. And you, after all, are the real star of this show.
Role Reversals: Snacks and Desserts
Former Stars: A bag of M&Ms, candy bars, microwave popcorn, a package of cheese-filled crackers from the vending machine.
Critic’s Review: When you’re at work, it can be hard to resist those 4 p.m. hunger pangs, and you may feel that the easiest thing to do is hit the vending machine for a quick snack. But processed food, devoid of almost any nutrients and usually filled with trans fats, is not the way to go, says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD, assistant professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Empty calories and trans fats mess up your metabolism and do you no favors when it comes to boosting energy levels — or tiding you over until dinnertime.
Role Reversal: If you’re looking for an equally quick snack, try whole-grain crackers spread with nut butter. Bringing this nutritious and tasty snack from home will take you no longer than trekking to the vending machine, and it’s bound to taste a lot better than highly processed crackers dipped in gobs of highly processed fake-cheese spread. Bonus: Between the protein and whole grains in nut butter and crackers, chances are your snack will more than tide you over until dinner. Not a cracker-and-cheese fan? Try the tried-and-true raw veggies and yogurt-dill dip, or a small dish of fresh berries topped with yogurt and granola.
Former Stars: Ice cream topped with strawberry or chocolate syrup, chocolate-chip cookies, a slice of pie or cake.
Critic’s Review: Ice cream is rich in calcium, but that’s the nicest thing Havala Hobbs can say about this rich dessert. “Ice cream sundaes are also high in saturated fat and added sugar, and are devoid of fiber,” she adds. Cookies, pies and cakes are generally loaded with refined flours and sugars, contributing to the rapid rise and fall of your blood-sugar levels.
Role Reversal: Many cultures don’t even eat dessert on a daily basis, so try to go lighter if you’re eating dessert more frequently. “Often times, we’re really full from the actual meal but we still cram down dessert after that,” says Havala Hobbs. “For many people, dessert is a festive punctuation mark at the end of meal, but it doesn’t need to be something that adds a lot of nutritional excess to our diets.”
A tropical fruit plate or a sorbet, she adds, would make excellent substitutions. So would a simple hot cup of tea, splitting dessert, or going the Chinese-restaurant route and just serving some juicy orange wedges. If you’re still hankering for ice cream, though, why not reverse the portion size? Fill a bowl with berries and drop a dollop of ice cream on top instead.