Building a Healthy Meal with MyPlate

Last June 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its’ new food icon, MyPlate, whose foundation was built upon the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for all Americans. Strongly backed by First Lady Michelle Obama and Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, MyPlate is the updated version of the outdated design that had been used for years, called MyPyramid.

Divided into three sections (visually similar to a circle graph), one-half of the plate represents fruits and/or vegetables, one-quarter whole grains, and one-quarter lean protein. Attached to the plate is a small side of fat-free or low-fat dairy. One of the main goals the government and USDA set out to achieve with MyPlate was to educate Americans about proper portion size by using an easy-to-understand icon that will facilitate healthier food choices and meal planning ideas by which to build a well-balanced plate.

USDA’s new MyPlate icon.

First Lady Michelle Obama says it best, “The plate is a new, multicolored symbol designed for people to see visually how much room on a plate each of the food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, protein & dairy — should occupy. If people visualize the icon as they fill their plate, USDA officials hope people will be reminded to make better, more balanced choices”.

As part of MyPlate, the USDA has launched a new health campaign which includes, among other things, advising Americans to watch salt consumption by reducing the intake of frozen foods, soups, and breads, in addition to decreasing sugary beverages and replacing those empty calories with water.

With the government taking a more active role in promoting good health and healthy eating, key questions remain more than one year into the MyPlate campaign. What role do organic vs. conventionally produced foods play in MyPlate? What about genetically modified organisms (GMO’s)? What role does the government (USDA or otherwise) play in ensuring food production that is safe for human consumption, affordable for all people, and produced with the least impact on our environment? And importantly, ‘How do I use MyPlate to build my meal (see below)?’

While these questions will continue to shape the ongoing discussion around food and health for years to come (and I have plenty of opinions on them for future blog posts), on the whole, I believe MyPlate is a much more useful and adaptable representation for how to nourish yourself and your family, in addition to an easy way to understand proper portion sizes. People don’t eat off pyramids. They eat off plates! And I think Americans will benefit from having an accurate visual of how to build your plate for every meal.

How to build your plate with the new recommendations.

Fresh strawberries, a great source of vitamin C and phytochemicals that help prevent cancer, fight aging, inflammation and more.

Fruits and/or Vegetables – Make these nutrient-dense foods half of your plate. The best ways to cook veggies is to steam or lightly sauté them with olive oil. No frying in butter or covering them in a cream-based sauce. Keep it simple. Salt, Pepper, Olive Oil or another healthy oil (I love coconut oil). As for fruits, try to buy fresh. Ditch the canned fruit – most have been soaking in high fructose corn syrup and contain a ton of added sugar. Lastly, frozen fruits and veggies are a great buy and are sometimes more fresh than “fresh” (unless you are buying your produce at the Farmer’s Market).

Grains – Grains should represent about one-quarter of your plate and be the whole grain kind. Abundant in fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, you want to include brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat couscous, whole-wheat pasta, whole grain bread, and/or oatmeal to your plate. Stay away from white, processed carbohydrates. These lack essential nutrients and are a waste of calories. Make sure the first ingredient is WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR!

Protein – Lean protein should be the final quarter of your plate. Stick to choices low in saturated fat and calories. Turkey, white meat chicken, pork, fish, shellfish, eggs, beans, soy, or any other vegetarian type of protein can be included. Grill, bake, broil, or sauté can be the perfect methods to keep it lean and low fat. Skip the deep-fry!

Dairy – The last component to MyPlate is dairy. Choose fat-free or low fat (1%) in place of full fat dairy. Milk, cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt can all be purchased in low-fat or fat-free options and are just as tasty. Just be careful of the sugar content. Stay away from yogurt that has more than 12 g of sugar per serving (some even have as much sugar as a candy bar). Greek yogurt is the best!

If you’d like more information about MyPlate, suggestions for age-based serving sizes, or meal planning ideas, please visit the USDA’s website –

Here’s to hoping MyPlate will help Americans develop healthier eating habits for a lifetime!

-By Jill Latham, MS, RD. Jill is a Nutritionist and Registered Dietician. Follow her blog here.

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