An insight on the construction of meals

2012-12-22 02:25:37 UTC

Last year, I started cooking for myself rather than depending on microwaved meals and fast food.

Earlier this year, a realization dawned on me, pertaining to the basic food groups that were drilled into every kid’s head via TV when I was growing up.

Those old PSAs talked about healthy eating, and how it was Very Important to eat something from the “four basic food groups” with every meal. As a kid who greatly preferred cookies to celery, this was no sale to me—I didn’t give a rat’s ass how healthy it was or wasn’t, I wanted food that tasted good. All the droning about “healthy eating” did nothing to make me think about it when deciding what I wanted.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and it hits me: Those “four basic food groups” (the number has varied over the years, as the aforelinked article outlines) are the framework of constructing a meal.

Nearly every single meal in the American diet is some combination of those four groups.

(This is particularly true of dinner. Numerous meals for other times of day leave out some of the groups.)

Here are the groups as I was taught them:

  • Meat (nowadays more generally classified as Protein)
  • Grains, especially bread
  • Fruit and veg
  • Dairy, such as cheese

Butter seems to often get filed under “fat” and excluded, which is technically true, but whenever it makes it to the plate, I think it makes more sense to file it under dairy. (Another reason to shun margarine, the False Butter.)

Let’s look at some example meals and how they satisfy the categories.

Note: I’m not claiming that these are all healthy meals—those healthy-eating PSAs are simply where I got the “four basic food groups” from. I’m reappropriating the groups as a framework for constructing meals. Anything that checks all four boxes is automatically a complete meal.

Also, this is mostly observation, not prescription. My epiphany is that most meals, particularly nearly all dinners, already fit this framework.

Cheeseburger
  • Bread/grains: Bun
  • Meat: Beef patty
  • Fruit/veg: Any of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions
  • Dairy: Cheese
Spaghetti and meatballs
  • Bread/grains: Pasta
  • Meat: Beef meatballs
  • Fruit/veg: Marinara sauce
  • Dairy: Cheese
Pizza
  • Bread/grains: Crust
  • Meat: Toppings; often pepperoni, ham, sausage, or a combination thereof
  • Fruit/veg: Sauce, plus some toppings, such as pineapple
  • Dairy: Cheese
Sandwich
  • Bread/grains: Sliced bread, such as white, wheat, rye, or sourdough
  • Meat: Sliced turkey, roast beef, or other
  • Fruit/veg: Lettuce and/or tomato
  • Dairy: Cheese
Dinner plate
  • Bread/grains: Often potato-based, such as baked or mashed potatoes; alternatively, rice
  • Meat: Steak, chicken, sliced turkey, etc.
  • Fruit/veg: Varies
  • Dairy: Cheese and/or butter

A meal doesn’t necessarily have to hit all four categories, though. Here are some that don’t:

Hot dog
  • Bread/grains: Bun
  • Meat: Meat frank, usually either beef, turkey, pork, or a mix of turkey, chicken, and pork
  • Fruit/veg: Relish (diced pickles) and/or diced onions (often both omitted)
  • Dairy: Omitted
Chili dog
  • Bread/grains: Bun
  • Meat: See hot dog
  • Fruit/veg: Usually omitted, AFAIK
  • Dairy: Cheese (optional)
Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Bread/grains: As above for sandwich
  • Meat: N/a
  • Fruit/veg: N/a
  • Dairy: Cheese

(On the other hand, panini are basically grilled cheese sandwiches that may include meat and/or fruit/veg.)

Bowl of cereal
  • Bread/grains: Cereal
  • Meat: N/a
  • Fruit/veg: Some folks put chopped strawberries or bananas on theirs, at least in the commercials
  • Dairy: Usually milk, but I eat mine dry
Pancakes/waffles
  • Bread/grains: Pancakes/waffles
  • Meat: N/a
  • Fruit/veg: As above for cereal, but can also include blueberries or similar berries (which may be either whole as a topping or chopped and mixed into the batter)
  • Dairy: Butter (optional)
Hamburger
  • Bread/grains: Bun
  • Meat: Beef patty
  • Fruit/veg: As above for cheeseburger
  • Dairy: N/a

A few points I want to acknowledge:

  • Vegetarians will, of course, exclude the meat category. (I consider veggie meats, such as tofu burger patties, to be cheating—you don’t get to check the meat box by having fake meat.) Some vegetarians will also exclude dairy.
  • Various dietary conditions, such as celiac disease, greatly restrict what sufferers can eat. I can barely imagine the problems that the tendency of American meals to fit this framework causes to sufferers of dietary restrictions that break it. (Those with celiac disease, for example, must not eat nearly all bread items—anything with gluten.)
  • I know very little of cuisine outside of the US. I wonder how much cuisine outside the US fits this same template, and how much is radically different.

This insight leads me to two conclusions:

  1. I can “invent” other meals that I might like simply by swapping items in the four boxes.
  2. It could be a worthwhile adventure to try to break out of this framework. What would a complete meal look like that doesn’t fit into all four categories? Vegetarians will have some idea in one direction; what other possibilities are there?

One Response to “An insight on the construction of meals”

  1. Seb Says:

    Look up \”Diet for a New America\”, one of many books that completely debunks the basic food groups teachings (which really came from the food industry and have been shown to actually be harmful to health). Another good one is \”The China Study\”. But if you want to be sick and eventually die, like most Americans, of diseases of affluence (heart disease, diabetes, cancer), then stick to your approach!

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