I was out standing in the field … literally. It was quite a scene in this place they call the Sandhills of Nebraska. Our group of about 20 cowboys and cowgirls of all ages were on horseback to gather a few hundred cows and their babies from rolling green hills in a pasture about the size of a small country.
This time every spring, ranchers host a branding — the time when calves get their tattoos and vaccinations. It’s a big job so they depend on their neighbors for help. (We drove more than an hour to get to this neighbor.)
After the cattle were rounded up, we took a short break to enjoy homemade cinnamon rolls (yum) and hot coffee brewed over an open fire in an old-timey enamel pot.
A few hours later when all the work was done and the cows were happily reunited with their babies, lunch sounded like a really good idea. And if I ever thought cowboys just eat meat and beans, our hostess, Naomi proved me wrong.
Under the vast blue sky, a huge table that looked like the flatbed of an old wagon was spread with an array of salads and vegetable trays. Heavy cast iron pots held warm beans and homemade fruit cobblers baked over an open fire.
And of course the main course was lean cuts of steak, grilled to perfection. Not one ounce of fat did I see on this home-raised beef.
This meal on the range was more than a delicious treat for hungry cowhands. In my mind, it was a great spread of essential nutrient groups.
Because of its simplicity, we may overlook the value of monitoring our intake through the lens of food groups. Yet according to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, when we make good choices from each of these groups (Vegetables, Fruit, Grains, Dairy and Protein) we get the balance of nutrients most associated with optimal health.
We need to choose wisely within each group, however. A daily intake of various colorful vegetables and fruits will cram more essential nutrients into our bodies than an occasional lettuce leaf on a hamburger, for example.
Within the grain group, whole grains such as oats and popcorn offer more nutrient value than refined grains such as donuts and sugar cookies. Avoid this group entirely though, and your body misses out on dietary fiber, iron, zinc, manganese, folate and a host of other micronutrients.
Foods in the dairy group include lower fat versions of milk, cheese, yogurt and fortified soy products. If you opt out of this nutrient group, you’ll need to find these essential nutrients elsewhere: calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12, protein, potassium, zinc, choline, magnesium, and selenium.
No one food supplies all the nutrition needed by the human body. That’s why we can ride easier through life when we choose to eat a variety of healthful foods from each nutrient group. Thank you, neighbors!
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.