NEW YORK — The American dinner plate just isn't what it used to be.
Once a big juicy cut of red beef nestled up to a pile of buttery mashed potatoes and a side of canned green beans was routine fare. Today, more plates are likely to be graced with a piccata of wasabi-seared tuna served over soba noodles on a bed of organic mesculin greens.
Americans are eating leaner, lighter, and more daringly than ever before. But at the same time, studies show, some old habits die hard.
"I see Americans becoming much, much more adventuresome," says Pamela Morgan, president and owner of Flavors Catering and Carryout in New York. "They're eating ethnic foods they never thought about 20 years ago, everything from Jamaican jerk to Asian curries."
Americans are also far more health conscious. Fat is out, fresh is in. Organic foods, once relegated to tiny health food shops, are now found in local supermarket bins. Another sign of the times: This fall, the US Department of Agriculture will weigh in with new standards for labeling foods "organic" or "pesticide free."
But perhaps the biggest change over the past 20 years is what's at the center of the plate. That mandatory piece of animal protein has been replaced by piles of pasta and exotic Asian noodles.
"People are consuming far more foods in mixtures, in part, because of the ethnic influences," says Alanna Moshefegh of the Food Survey Research Group at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Every three years, USDA researchers span out across the country in search of the changing American diet. They visit more than 5,000 homes to do in-depth interviews about each family's eating habits. The results of the 1994-1996 survey show Americans are eating healthier foods but they don't always put on their dinner plates the fruits and vegetables things they know they should.
On any given day, only 1 in 10 Americans reports eating a dark green or deep yellow vegetable. That's compared to 1 out of 4 that indulges in a basket of French fries.
But even as some things stay the same, they also change - even at the ballpark. A recent survey of 28 Major League ballparks by the American Dietetic Association found that peanuts, hot dogs and fries are still baseball staples. But almost all now offer grilled chicken sandwiches. You can get a fresh salad at almost half the parks. And more than a handful serve up veggie burgers, yogurt, even Asian noodles to go back to the bleachers.
It's not just people at ballparks who go back forth between old and new habits. "I fluctuate a real lot in what I eat," says Rebecca Mercure, a graphic designer from Bridgeport, Conn., between bites of a mayonnaise-less egg-salad sandwich. "I don't eat greasy, fatty things anymore. But of course, I have my bad days."
And so do many Americans. While most people are eating significantly less fat, the general public is getting fatter. In 1977, 40 percent of the calories consumed came from fat. Today, only 33 percent do. But 1 in 3 Americans is now overweight, according to the USDA, as opposed 20 years ago, when only 1 in 5 was tipping over the scales.
The problem: While Americans are eating less fat, they're also eating more of everything else, particularly snack foods. "What we think and say is important doesn't always translate into what we're doing," says Ms. Moshefegh.
Ruth Roth can attest to that. It was with both gusto and a hint of guilt, that she crunched into the vinegar and salt potato chips that sat on her plate next to a tuna-fish-salad sandwich complete with what she called, "real mayonnaise."
"We haven't eaten like this in two years," says Ms. Roth, a teacher from Jersey City, N.J., over lunch with her daughter in New York City's Bryant Park. Usually, she says, they leave out the junk food.
But like most Americans, she doesn't always succeed. Consumption of savory, salty snacks like pretzels, potato chips, popcorn, and corn chips soared more than 200 percent in the last 20 years.
"They're now crunching as a traditional side dish: In fact, 50 percent of the time potato chips are eaten, they're eaten with meals," says James Shufelt, president of the Snack Food Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents more than 700 snack-food manufacturers.
But even the snack food industry is bowing to the health-conscious American. There are now low-fat baked potato crisps, baked tortilla chips, and dozens of fat-free brands of pretzels. It's still a niche market, but it's grown considerably, according to Mr. Shufelt.
In keeping with the sometimes contradictory complexity of the American palate, the rise in snack-food consumption is accompanied by a growing demand for organic health foods.
In the late 1970's, only a fraction of a percentage of Americans were buying organic foods for their dinner plate. Surveys today show only 7 percent of all Americans consider themselves "truly natural" in their eating habits, but 25 percent of all shoppers report buying natural or organic foods at the supermarket once a week. And more than 75 percent of all senior supermarket managers see "organic" as an coming trend.
Some two dozen Maine dairy farmers are preparing to sell organic milk, a market that topped $30 million in sales last year.
"For the last 10 years people have been hearing about environmental pollution and food safety scares," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. "More and more they're questioning where their food comes from and how it's grown."
Vanne Stewart of Gourmet Magazine in New York, says that's in keeping with the trend that shows Americans are also eating more fresh, locally grown foods than 20 years ago. "A locally grown raspberry at the height of the season is automatically going to taste better than one from halfway around the world," she says. "We're realizing it's worth waiting for the season for lots of fruits and vegetables."
How Americans Eat In the 1990s
* About 65 percent of Americans say it's important to eat fruits and vegetables, but only 40 percent consistently do.
* Ten percent of Americans eat a green or yellow vegetable daily.
* 25 percent of Americans buy natural or organic foods weekly.
* 25 percent of Americans eat a basket of French fries every day.
* In 1977, 20 percent of Americans were overweight. Today one-third of Americans are overweight.
* The average Americans eats about 21 pounds of snack food annually, a 200 percent rise since 1977.
Source: USDA and The Snack Food Association