USDA MyPlate Food Plate for Your Child

The new MyPlate logo from the USDA is supposed to help people build a healthy plate of food.
The new MyPlate logo from the USDA is supposed to help people build a healthy plate of food. USDA

As parents of young children, helping guide little ones to meals and snacks that provide them with the energy and nutrients they need is often on our minds. How do you provide variety? How do you know what a balanced meal looks like? Enter MyPlate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a color-coded place setting designed to help people visualize the foods they should be eating.

A History of Encouraging Varied, Balanced Eating

The USDA has been publishing some type of nutrition guidelines for over 100 years. In 1992, it introduced the Food Guide Pyramid as a way to help people to make nutrient-informed food choices. The pyramid was divided into six horizontal sections and showed pictures of the foods in each group depicted.

Alongside each illustration were suggested daily servings of each food. Since each person has different needs, appetite, and preferences, using these numbers only as a general guide was a good idea.

The pyramid was updated in 2005. Called "MyPyramid," it featured vertical stripes of varying widths, once again designed to demonstrate how much of a particular food group consumers should be eating from each day. Each food group had a different color.

Still, there were complaints from many that MyPyramid, while an improvement on the first incarnation, was confusing and didn't adequately explain what and how much people should be eating. With MyPlate, the graphics indicate how a person should spend their "food budget" each day: approximately 30% grains, 30%vegetables, 20% fruits and 20% protein. A small circle represents dairy.

“It’s grabbing the consumers’ attention that we are after this time, not making it so complicated that perhaps it is a turnoff,” said Robert Post of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “There is something really inviting about this familiar setting for meal time.”

However, assigning each food group a certain number of calories can distance people from listening to their body cues on hunger and fullness. And this format can feel restrictive.

What Should Be On Your "MyPlate"?

With five food groups represented—fruit, vegetable, grains, protein, and dairy—MyPlate breaks down what we should be eating proportionately, encouraging consumers to "build a healthy plate." To assist further, guidelines published with the food plate include:

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals―and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

It's difficult to offer nuanced messaging with a campaign like this. When it comes to feeding kids, individual preferences are extremely important, as is ensuring that no food or type of food is being vilified.

Parents Still Looking for Answers

"This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we're eating and as a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country," said then-First Lady Michelle Obama at a press conference unveiling MyPlate.

"When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we're already asked to be a chef, a referee, a cleaning crew," said Mrs. Obama. "So it's tough to be a nutritionist, too. But we do have time to take a look at our kids' plates. As long as they're half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, we're good."

Still, many parents are confused. "I understand my daughter needs to eat fruits and vegetables," says Justine Miller, mom to 4-year-old Bella. "But do I have to follow what the plate says for every meal? What about snacks? It just seems too vague. I liked the pyramid because there were concrete examples."

Nutritionists are sympathetic. “When I first heard about the plate coming out, it made sense to me that perhaps it would be more realistic and ‘food-like’ and people could relate to it," says Dr. Kathy Keenan Isoldi, RD, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.

"But then when it came out with just the blocks and the words Fruits, Grains, Vegetables, and Proteins, I was a little disappointed," says Dr. Isoldi. "I was hoping for a design with a little more ‘reality’ to it, like a plate of beautiful healthy food. But I know what they wanted to do was to leave it open to interpretation."

Dr. Isoldi says that she doesn't think the food on the plate necessary represents one day's worth of eating and she wishes they had shown that plate and then one with food on it.

"It's just showing a traditional dinner plate," she says. "It's not even lunch or breakfast. I don't think the message is that people are supposed to eat that at every meal. You could, but that would be culturally different for us."

One of the problems with MyPlate, Dr. Isoldi says is that we've gone from a complex message—a pyramid with different lines—to something that is very simple and people aren't quite sure what to do with it.

"On the bright side, if we can get all people—and this certainly includes parents of children ages two to five—to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat, then we've made a good stride."

Expert Tips for Feeding Your Preschooler Using MyPlate

Dr. Isoldi says, when it comes to feeding a young child, the key is to relax. "Kids ages two to five often have a reduction in appetite. There's a great growth spurt from birth to age two, but then the rate of growth slows down." What's most important is to make the most of what they are eating. Here's what Dr. Isoldi recommends.

  1. Do not panic. You want to make sure there is a nice harmony in your house when it comes to food. If you have food fights in your house when the kids are little, you'll have them when they are in their teens too. There should be no stress in the home around the meal.
  2. Let kids ride out a food jag. Desperate because all your little one will eat is macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets? Remember that kids will often eat one type of food for a period of time and then switch to another. Look at your child's intake over the course of a week or even a month, not just a day.
  3. Get your kids involved in the process. Kids who take part in food preparation—whether it's going shopping or helping to make the meal—are more likely to eat. Get a chair or a stool and let them wash vegetables. Take them to the store and let them pick out fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, etc., for family meals.
  4. Allow "treat" foods. If you restrict certain foods, it will backfire when they are older. Try including the treat food on a child's plate with dinner, so they don't feel a sense of scarcity around treats This method also allows them to enjoy all of the food on their plate without thinking only about eating a meal in order to get dessert.
  5. Talk about the colors, textures, and flavors of food. These are the things kids are excited about! Say, "Yay! Today we are going to make a colorful, crunchy dinner!" Then ask if they want to help.
  6. Make changes slowly. Start with fruit rather than vegetables. And when you are introducing something new, just put a small amount on their plate. Remember that little kids have little tummies and they run around a lot. They do need to eat more frequently.

Snack ideas include peanut butter on crackers, ants on a log (although keep in mind that could be hard for kids three and under to chew), fruited yogurts or plain yogurt with some fruit and maple syrup added, Greek yogurt, reduced fat string cheeses, whole grain toast with nut or seed butters, corn chips with guacamole. Also good: yogurt smoothies made with half vanilla and half plain yogurt, frozen fruit (or fresh fruit and ice), milk and vanilla; or ice pops made from orange or apple juice or leftover smoothie.

“I do think the pyramid that was instituted in 2005 was confusing to some people, so this is an improvement," said Dr. Isoldi. "And a big benefit is that this gets people talking about food. If it helps people understand that half their plate should be fruits and vegetables, the MyPlate will be a success. Those two groups have most of the benefits, and they’re the ones where we too often fall short.”

A Word From Verywell

While a tool like MyPlate can be helpful for envisioning how you might plan meals, it's important to remember that what we eat is an average over the course of a week, not a snapshot of a single meal or even day. When feeding kids, this is especially important to keep in mind. MyPlate can be a general guide, but you aren't failing at feeding your kids if every meal doesn't look like the MyPlate example.

The dynamics at mealtime are as important as the food. Keep mealtimes as positive as possible and let kids choose what foods they take and how much they eat from what you've offered. Avoid using eating a meal as a reward for getting dessert, and never comment on the amount anyone at the table eats.

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.