In an effort to make it easier for parents to figure out how to feed their kids nutritious, balanced meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has introduced an easy-to-follow food guide icon: MyPlate.
The colorful divided plate includes sections for vegetables, fruits, grains, and foods high in protein. It's an improvement upon the complex and confusing MyPyramid that previously detailed the USDA's dietary guidelines.
With MyPlate, forget about measuring out serving sizes and trying to remember whether a piece a chicken should be the size of a fist or a golf ball. MyPlate's user-friendly, interactive website provides simple messages parents can readily grasp, such as:
- fill half your child's plate with vegetables and fruits
- make at least half the grains you serve whole grains, like oatmeal and brown rice
- serve fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk and water rather than sugary drinks
- when buying pre-packaged foods, choose ones low in sodium
- don't serve oversized portions
Here's more about how to get MyPlate onto your table:
From Pyramid to Plate: What's Changed?
MyPyramid represented the five food groups plus oils with six colorful vertical stripes. The stripes were thicker or thinner depending on how much of one food group should be consumed. Steps on the left side of the pyramid reminded people to stay active each day.
At first glance, it was difficult to tell how much of each food group should be in a healthy diet. That's where MyPlate really makes meal planning easier. Just by looking at the icon, you know right away that vegetables and fruits should take up half the plate (with the veggie portion being a bit bigger), and grains and protein foods should take up the other half (with more grains on this side). And with a side helping of dairy, you're reminded that kids also need a serving of milk or another dairy food (like cheese or yogurt) at each meal.
Because MyPlate is a divided plate, no one food group overpowers the others. That's because dietary guidelines encourage eating a variety of foods and discourage "super-sized" portions, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Although the food guide icon has changed, the USDA's message about eating well has stayed the same. Kids still need to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with lean meats or other forms of protein and low-fat dairy products.
Oils provide important nutrients and are recommended in small amounts but aren't included on the MyPlate icon. That's because dietary guidelines recommend limiting oils, solid fats, and foods with added sugars. These foods provide what are considered empty calories because they add calories and have little or no nutritional value.
Exercise is no longer included in the icon, but it's still an important component of a healthy lifestyle. Starting at 2 years of age, kids need at least 60 minutes of moderate to physical activity each day.
How to Make MyPlate Yours
Once you get the concept of MyPlate down, you might be wondering: Do I have to serve all the food groups at each meal? And what about breakfast? Do I really have to give my kids veggies for breakfast? After all, it might be hard enough to get them to eat them at lunch or dinner.
The answer is no, but aim to serve a variety of food groups at each meal. Use the plate as a guide when planning and serving meals. And if breakfast or lunch doesn't include a veggie or fruit, serve one of those at snack time (yes, portion-controlled snacks are still a good idea!).
The goal is to think of the plate as an entire day's worth of eating: so, throughout the day, try to make half of what your kids eat vegetables and fruits, and the other half grains and protein foods. An occasional treat is fine, but be careful to limit the amount of empty calories your kids eat.
If you're thinking it might be difficult to get your kids to take a bite off this new plate, practice what you preach. MyPlate is not just for kids, but for adults, too. Kids who see their parents eating better are more likely to do so themselves.
Green = Vegetables
The vegetable portion of MyPlate, identified in green, is one of the largest portions on the plate. That's because, just like grandma said, it's important to "eat your veggies!"
Vegetables provide many of the vitamins and minerals kids need for good health, are naturally low in calories, and contain fiber. The vegetable group is divided into five subgroups based on their nutrients:
- dark green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, and kale)
- orange and red vegetables (like squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes)
- beans and peas (like kidney beans, lentils, and black-eyed peas - also included in the protein group)
- starchy vegetables (like corn, potatoes, and plantains)
- other vegetables (those that don't fall into a particular nutritional category, like artichokes and avocado)
For best nutritional value, serve a variety of vegetables to your family each week. Vegetables can be prepared and served in any number of ways and can be purchased fresh, frozen, dried/dehydrated, or canned.
Red = Fruits
Fruits take up a slightly smaller portion of the plate than vegetables, but they're still an important part of a diet. They contain necessary nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. Great choices include oranges, peaches, mangoes, strawberries, and apples.
Serve fruit a variety of ways: whole, cut up, in smoothies. When buying canned fruit, choose fruit that is packed in juice rather than heavy or light syrup. It's best to choose whole fruit over 100% fruit juice, as some of the nutrients are lost in the juicing process.
Orange = Grains
The grain group includes any food made from wheat, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other grain. Bread, tortillas, cereal, rice, and pasta belong in this group.
At least half of the grains kids consume each day should be whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, and whole wheat. Whole grains contain dietary fiber that helps you feel full and protects against constipation. Eating a diet rich in whole grains also might decrease the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
Whole grains are different from refined grains, such as those in white bread and white rice, which have been processed and had many of their nutrients removed. Most refined grains are enriched, which means that nutrients, except fiber, are added back after processing.
Purple = Protein Foods
Foods that are high in protein help the body build, maintain, and repair tissue. They also have nutrients that are necessary to the body, like B vitamins and iron.
Protein-rich foods include beef, poultry, seafood, dry beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Soy products like tofu and veggie burgers are also good sources of protein. When eating meats, choose lean or low-fat options and try to minimize deli meats and other processed meats that are high in sodium.
Blue = Dairy
This group includes milk and other dairy products that retain their calcium content, such as yogurt and cheese. Calcium-fortified soy milk is also included in the dairy group. Besides providing calcium, dairy products are important sources of vitamin D and protein. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and use it for healthy bones and teeth.
Remember to skip the whole milk for kids over 2 years old and serve low-fat or nonfat milk and dairy products.
Oils: No Longer on the Guide
Oils were included in the Food Guide Pyramid because of the essential nutrients they provide, but you won't find them on the plate. Still, it's important to know about oils, which are fats that are liquid at room temperature.
Most oils (like cooking oils, such as olive oil, corn oil, or canola oil, and oil-rich foods like nuts, olives, and avocados) are high in what's considered "good" fats: monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. These fats raise (good) HDL cholesterol, which helps prevent heart problems, and maintain healthy levels of (bad) LDL cholesterol, which can lead to heart problems if elevated. It's good to incorporate a small amount of these types of oils into your diet.
On the other hand, solid fats (like butter, shortening, and margarine) contain more saturated fats and/or trans fats ("bad fats") than most oils, and should be limited. Some oils, including coconut oil and hydrogenated oils, are high in saturated or trans fats and are considered solid fats. Consuming large amounts of saturated and trans fats has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and increase the risk for heart disease.
Customize Your Plate
MyPlate should be seen as a guide for healthy eating, and not a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody. Depending on a child's need, some food groups will need to be increased and others decreased. Talk to your health care provider to find out what's best for your kids.
The USDA's website offers food suggestions and tips, portion guidelines by age, and interactive tools to help you make MyPlate yours. Visit online at ChooseMyPlate.gov. [Please note: By clicking on this link, you will be leaving our site.]
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: June 2011