Canada’s Food Guide has had an extreme makeover. Gone are the colour-coded food groups, age-specific recommendations and complicated serving sizes. In their place is an image of a plate, with the left side filled with fruits and vegetables. The upper right quadrant is reserved for “protein foods” (especially plant-based ones), while the bottom right section is for “whole grain foods.” There are no numbers or percentages anywhere. It’s a qualitative, not quantitative, approach.
Growing up, my family viewed the original Food Guide with a respect that bordered on reverence. None of my classmates had food allergies and I had never heard of quinoa or kale. Clearly, times have changed. At first glance, I wasn’t sure what to make of this updated, less-structured system. As I read more about it, other recommendations emerged, such as: cook at home more often; be mindful about eating habits; buy fewer packaged products; and limit salt, sugar and saturated fat. I knew all these things were important, but how was I going to do it all? I felt overwhelmed, like the placemat was being pulled out from under me. I decided to seek help from three trusted sources.
First, I consulted my sister, Kim Straus, who is miles ahead of me on the road to healthy eating. She’s done all the reading about going gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free. She grows her own vegetables and serves roasted chickpeas as a snack. She’s a pro at preparing home-cooked, healthy meals for her husband and three kids.
Her best advice? When you’re cooking something, make it a large batch. “If you intentionally cook extra portions, tonight’s chicken breast dinner can be cut up in the kids’ lunches tomorrow – no cold cuts required,” she says. “Or, do a spin-off meal the next day, like a salad or stir-fry.”
This is the point where I tend to start whining to her about how life is so demanding and I barely have time to make that night’s meal, let alone think about the next day. Like any good sister, she doesn’t let me off the hook. “You can do it,” she says firmly. “You’re turning on the oven and preparing the main dish anyway, so make it count. Buy a larger package of chicken and get a bigger pan. Or, use two pans and cook the second round while you’re eating. It requires very little extra effort.” As proof of Kim’s wisdom, I later found this same tip in the new Food Guide’s online resource section, with the heading “Cook once and eat twice.”
Next, I wanted input from a sports mom. My kids have a busy schedule of activities, so I needed some real-world advice from a parent who is equally strapped for time. Enter my new friend Kristan Arthur, who I met in the bleachers at my son’s basketball game. I didn’t wait long to start grilling her about meal planning strategies. She eagerly shared that her two kids had come home from school talking about the new Food Guide, and how she’d used that as a springboard at mealtime.
“I love the image of the divided-up plate,” she says, “and I wanted to empower the kids to build their own. So, I chopped up a ridiculous amount of vegetables and brought it all to the table. The kids filled the left side of their plates with the veggies they wanted, in amounts they felt they could reasonably eat. Then they added their proteins and grains on the other side. If they ate everything, they were welcome to take more food from any category.”
If you like this strategy, you’ll love how Kristan took it to the next level. She and her husband both work full-time, so packing lunches is a daily burden. “Since the veggies were freshly washed and chopped, I brought the lunch containers over to the table once we’d finished eating,” she explains. “The kids filled them with their favourites, so we had a head start on everyone’s lunch. I also prep a few grab-and-go bags of nuts or cut-up fruit to take in the van, as a pre- or post-game snack.” It all sounded like a winning system to me.
The last person I turned to isn’t exactly a friend, but more of a mythical figure in my life. At my bridal shower in the late 90s, one of the gifts I received was Looneyspoons, the bestselling cookbook by sisters Janet and Greta Podleski. I was a complete cooking rookie, but the book instantly drew me in with its hilarious cartoons and creative recipe titles like “A Penne For Your Thoughts.” The clever puns and user-friendly recipes made me a fan for life.
The sisters came out with several follow-up recipe collections, and in 2017, Greta published a solo cookbook entitled Yum and Yummer. With my Food Guide goals in mind, I paged through it looking for the same inspiration that Looneyspoons had given me two decades ago. The book’s introduction is nothing short of prophetic, as Greta writes: “For many people…healthy eating simply means using natural, fresh ingredients to make tasty, home-cooked meals versus eating out of packages, boxes and bags and in fast-food restaurants.”
Greta’s philosophy is certainly consistent with the thinking behind the new Food Guide. I’ve already flagged one of her chicken marinades for a mega-batch that will make my sister proud, and I’ll be using Kristan’s “choose your own veggies” plan for the side dishes. Although I do have a lot on my plate, maybe I can do this after all. Thanks, ladies, for your encouragement and Food Guide-ance.