I told my kids to think of the Agriculture Department's new pyramid-shaped chart of healthy foods as if it were a hot fudge sundae.
The prized stuff, the stuff we should lap up, was on the bottom. The stuff we were supposed to take it easy on, like the maraschino cherry, was on the top. And as we ate our way toward the pinnacle, we took increasingly smaller bites.
That was one of several attempts I made at translating the much-ballyhooed pyramid into everyday eating advice for my kids.
The chart attempts to tell Americans about good dietary practices by stacking the basic food groups into four levels. Bread, cereal, rice and pasta are at the base of the pyramid. Next come fruits and vegetables. Then, the crowded level containing milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, fish, poultry, dry beans, eggs and nuts. Finally, there's the level of fats, oils and sweets.
I didn't care for the pyramid. I found it confusing. And not very appealing. Even reminding myself that a pyramid sort of looked like a Dorito didn't help.
That was one reason I came up with the hot fudge sundae analogy. It probably would not win USDA approval. A sundae is a dessert. And after studying the pyramid, I got the feeling that the people who put it together are not big believers in the pro-dessert lifestyle.
For instance, one illustration that accompanied the release of the chart showed the sorriest-looking sundae I have ever seen. If back in my days as soda jerk at the Snow White Drive-In in St. Joe, Mo., I had served a hot fudge sundae looking like that one, the boss would have told me to turn in my ice cream scooper.
That sundae looked like an Alaskan oil spill or an eruption of Mount Etna -- some calamity from which you wanted to escape. I guess this was part of the message behind the chart. When a modern-day eater encounters a sundae, or any form of sweets, he is supposed to turn tail and run.
Another problem I had with the pyramid was that it required me to think upside-down. The foods at the top of the chart, the "up" foods, were nutritionally inferior to the ones at the bottom, the "down" foods.
The first time I saw the pyramid, my eyes went right to top of it. That is the spot Americans want to land: at the top of the heap. Sure enough, there, at pyramid penthouse, were my old friends, sweets, fats and oils. For a moment I was delighted. I thought that they were being honored as the reigning form of food. But when I read the text accompanying the pyramid, I realized that the message behind the chart was exactly the opposite.
The chart wants me to dine sparingly, not frequently, on these highly placed foods. Moreover, it wants me to become a bottom feeder and eat six to 11 servings per day of the bread, cereal and pasta at the bottom of the pyramid. This is a lot for me to swallow. Not only is the government asking me to think of toast as being more appetizing than ice cream, it also wants me to believe that I should become a downwardly mobile eater.
Another idea I came up with was to turn the pyramid upside-down. This, I figured, would make the chart simpler for my kids to understand, and it also fit in with my fire-and-brimstone approach to maintaining household order.
With an inverted food pyramid, I could show the kids that the angelic food was on top, closer to heaven. And sinful stuff, like french fries and pie, was at the bottom of the chart, closer to you-know-where.
I quickly abandoned this explanation when I realized to which destination my diet would send me.
And then I told the kids that instead of steps up a pyramid, they should think of food groups as kids sitting in a classroom.
The dependable foods -- bread, cereal, rice -- were the ones placed in the back of the classroom. They are full of the right stuff and like to be called on frequently, about six to 11 times a day. Next to them, a bit closer to the front, you would find another source of rectitude, fruits and vegetables. The vegetables are good for three to five correct servings a day, and fruits are correct two to four times daily.
Up front are the occasional troublemakers, meat, fish, poultry and dairy. They are fine when they are moderate, about two to three offerings a day. But when periods of excess use set in, the trouble starts.
And, finally, up in the front row were the established troublemakers, sweets, fats and oils. They should be used sparingly, which is about as often as a kid sitting in the front row behaves.
This explanation worked fine -- until the kids wanted to know where I sat when I was in school.
That is when we began talking about hot fudge sundaes.