What's on MyPlate?
Students will explore what it means to eat a healthy diet by comparing the foods they typically eat in a day with the recommendations of MyPlate. Grades 6-8
- Assorted food and beverage labels with example serving sizes or Food Models
- Food Label handout
- Sample Serving Sizes handout
- Estimating Serving Sizes handout
- A Day in the Life of MyPlate Chart, 1 per student
diet: the kinds of food that a person, animal or community habitually eats
MyPlate: nutritional guide published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); icon depicting a place setting with a plate and glass divided into five food groups
Did You Know?
- Vitamin A (found in dark-green, red, and orange fruits and vegetables) helps protect your skin and eyes, helps you see at night, and helps your body fight off infections.1
- The B vitamins (found in chicken, fish and other protein foods) help your body tap into energy from the food you eat.1
- Calcium (found in dairy products) helps build strong bones and teeth.1
- Carbohydrates (found in vegetables, fruits, milk, and grains like breads, cereals, and pasta) give you energy to run, jump, and even blink your eyes.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Diet. This four-letter word pops up everywhere. You can drink a diet cola, eat diet foods, or put yourself or even your pet on a diet. For many people the word diet is synonymous with a weight-loss program. In reality, diet refers to the foods and beverages a person selects and consumes daily. That means we all have a diet. Whatever foods we choose to eat or drink become our diet. Eating a variety of healthy foods in balanced proportions creates a diet that provides the nutrients essential for work, play, and overall good health.
The USDA MyPlate icon identifies five food groups and illustrates healthy relative proportions for each food group. The icon shows that half of a healthy diet should consist of fruits and vegetables. The USDA also recommends that half of the grains consumed should be whole grains, and highly processed foods high in fat and sugar should be consumed in limited amounts only. Physical activity is also an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. The number of calories a person should consume varies depending on the individual’s age, gender, size, and activity level. The more total calories a person needs, the greater the number of servings needed from each food group.
The Grains Group, represented by the orange compartment on MyPlate, includes any food that is a grain or is made from grains, including bread, cereal, rice, pasta, tortillas, crackers, and pancakes. Foods in this group supply the B vitamins—niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin—that are important in keeping our blood, skin, and nervous system healthy. Grains also supply complex carbohydrates, an important source of long-lasting energy; fiber, which helps with digestion; and vitamin E, which is important for the proper function of many organs. Although grains are naturally low in fat, many of the foods that grains are used in contain added fats and sugars, making them high in calories and relatively low in nutrients. Cakes, cookies, pies, donuts, muffins, and sweet rolls are included in this group, but they should be eaten in moderation. Based on an 1800-calorie diet, it is suggested that children consume 6 ounces of grains daily, and at least half of those should be whole grains. Whole grain foods contain all three parts of the grain: the endosperm, germ, and bran. Refined grains, like pastry flour and all-purpose white flour, generally have the germ and bran removed. Whole grains are higher in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains.
The Vegetable Group is the green compartment on MyPlate. All kinds of vegetables are included here, whether they are fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. They can be eaten raw or consumed as juice. Vegetables are the main source of vitamin A, which is important for healthy skin and eyes. Vegetables are also a source of fiber. Many vegetables are naturally low in fat. It is suggested that children eat 2½ cups of vegetables every day.
The Fruit Group is represented by the red compartment. All kinds of fruits are included here—fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. It includes whole fruit as well as 100% fruit juices. Fruits are our main source of vitamin C, which helps the body heal, grow new cells, and use iron supplied by other foods. Fruits, like vegetables and grains, are also a source of fiber. Like vegetables, many fruits also provide vitamin A and are naturally low in fat. The recommended daily amount for children is 1½ cups. Notice how the fruits and vegetables together make up half of the plate—this is a good approach to planning a healthy meal.
The MyPlate graphic includes a blue “cup” next to the plate to represent the Dairy Group. Foods in this group include all kinds of milk—even chocolate milk—and foods made from milk, such as cheese and yogurt. This group provides calcium-rich foods that are needed to help bones grow and strengthen. Suggested amounts are 3 cups daily for children of ages 9 to 12 and 2½ cups daily for children of ages 4 to 8.
Last is the purple compartment, which is the Protein Group. The Protein Group includes meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. Meats include beef, pork, and lamb. Poultry includes chicken, turkey, and Cornish game hens. Beans include dry beans, dry peas, and lentils. Nuts include any kind of nuts or seeds or any nut butter, such as peanut butter. Foods in this group come from both animals and plants and are important for providing protein, which is essential in building strong muscles, repairing and building new body tissue, and keeping skin, hair, and nails healthy. The B vitamins and trace elements such as zinc and iron are provided by foods in this group, as well as iron, which carries oxygen through our blood to the cells. Some foods in this group can be high in fat, so be sure to choose plenty of lean proteins! Children should eat 5 ounces daily.
Oils are not a food group, but some are needed for good health. As long as they are not eaten in excess, oils from fish, nuts, olives, canola, and other sources are healthy choices.
In addition to the relative proportions consumed from each food group, a person who wants to eat a healthy diet also needs to pay attention to serving size. Serving size varies depending on the type of food. There is not one serving size for all foods. For example, 1 cup of dry cereal, 1 slice of bread, ½ cup of dried fruit, 1 cup of yogurt, and 3 ounces of lean hamburger are all equivalent to one serving. See the “Sample Serving Sizes” handout included with this lesson for additional examples.
Serving sizes represent portions of individual foods that provide similar quantities of major nutrients. They are based on a reference food identified for each of the five food groups. For example, 8 ounces of milk is the reference serving size in the Dairy Group. Eight ounces of yogurt (1 cup), 1½ ounces of natural cheese, and 2 ounces of processed cheese are approximately equal in calcium content to 8 ounces of milk.
The average American diet is generally unbalanced when compared with the suggested servings from MyPlate. Most Americans fall short of the recommended minimum number of servings for fruits and vegetables and consume more fats and oils than recommended. No single food or food group provides all the nutrients a person needs to stay healthy and have a high energy level. Each food group is equally important because each plays a different role in good health.
Using MyPlate can help children and adults alike eat more nutritionally every day. Variety and moderation, along with exercise, are the keys to a healthy lifestyle. The first step to determine the shape of our diet begins with analyzing the foods we eat in each of the food groups. And remember, dieting is not about how much someone weighs. It is about choosing foods for the essential nutrients and energy that enable each person to grow and develop.
- Everyone knows it is important to eat every day. Use the following discussion questions to get your students thinking about their food choices:
- Do you think about what foods you eat? How often do you eat?
- How do you decide what kinds of foods to eat?
- Do you think you make healthy choices? Why or why not?
- Then use these questions to introduce the concept of serving size:
- Do you think about how much of each kind of food you eat? Why or why not?
- Where can we get information about serving size and dietary requirements? (nutrition labels and www.myplate.gov)
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Understanding Dietary Guidelines
- Ask students to help collect a variety of food and beverage labels and examples of serving sizes, such as one cup of dry cereal, one piece of fruit, or a 12-ounce can of soda. Alternatively, you may use the Food Models available for purchase (see Materials). Food Models provide a visual representation of foods along with nutritional information.
- Explain that some serving sizes are easy to identify and equate to dietary requirements; for example, a single egg, an apple, or a slice of bread. Share the supporting information about serving sizes:
- Use the Food Label handout to show students where to find serving size information. Use your sample food and beverage labels and examples of serving sizes (or Food Models) to emphasize that serving size depends on the food; there is not a uniform serving size. One serving supplies the number of calories and nutrients provided on the nutrition label.
- Share the Sample Serving Sizes handout and point out some of the different measurements in each of the food groups. Emphasize that each of the foods listed represents ONE serving.
- Show the Estimating Serving Sizes handout and talk about each of the comparisons. Supply additional copies for student use, if desired.
- Provide each student with a copy of the A Day in the Life of MyPlate Chart to record everything they eat or drink, including the serving size, for the next 24 hours. Encourage students to eat normally.
- Discuss what should be documented. Explain that they need to include anything they put on foods such as butter, jelly, taco sauce, ketchup, and so on. Also, remind students that combination foods must be broken down. For example, a hamburger may include a bun, meat, lettuce, onion, cheese, tomato, and mayonnaise. Point out to students that if they eat two eggs, these count as two servings. Serving size information can be found on food and beverage labels, at the USDA Choose MyPlate site, or on the Food Models.
Activity 2: A Day in the Life of MyPlate
- Make a chart in a visible place with the headings Meal, Beverage, and Snack where you can list the foods students recorded on their A Day in the Life of MyPlate Chart activity sheets. Ask students to share the foods and beverages they recorded and place them on the chart.
- Ask and discuss the following questions:
- Were you able to break down the combination foods into specific foods? (Ask for examples such as pizza, sandwiches, or tacos.)
- Did you remember to include foods such as butter, peanut butter, jelly, taco sauce, mustard, ketchup, and so on?
- How many of you eat breakfast? What did you eat?
- How many of you ate snacks? How many snacks? What did you eat?
- Introduce the concept of food groups by showing the MyPlate Activity Poster. Explain that the icon identifies five food groups (identify each by name) and illustrates the relative proportions of each group included in a healthy diet. For example, fruits and vegetables make up half the plate.
- Discuss the following questions:
- What is a food group? (Foods are put in specific groups based on the main nutrients they provide our bodies. For example, foods in the Fruit Group are our main source of vitamin C.)
- How do you use this plate? (It helps us decide what foods to eat and understand the amounts required to meet nutrient and calorie needs.)
- What is a serving size? (Serving sizes represent portions of individual foods that provide similar amounts of major nutrients.)
- Divide the class into five groups. Working with the list of meals, beverages, and snacks generated from the students’ activity sheets, ask the groups to identify which MyPlate food group—Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein, or Dairy—each item belongs in.
- Ask each group to read one food group or category to the class. If some foods have been placed incorrectly, the class can help identify the correct group or category. Check for understanding.
- Hand out the Total Servings by Food Group Comparison activity sheet. Ask students to complete the activity sheet working individually and to think about how the number of servings they ate in each food group compares to the number of servings suggested on MyPlate.
- Have students discuss their results with a partner. Ask them to compare number of servings for each of the food groups and identify some general patterns. Delve deeper into the results with the following suggested activities:
- Repeat the comparison with groups of four. Have each group determine its average number of servings for each food group.
- Make this same comparison and pattern identification for the entire class. Ask each group to report its average number of servings by food group. Record these numbers in a visible place, and ask the students to determine the class averages.
Activity 3: What Food Group Am I?
- Review students’ results from the Total Servings by Food Group Comparison sheet by using the following questions:
- How many of you ate at least the suggested number of servings in all of the food groups? In four food groups? Three? Two? One? None?
- Was there any food group from which you ate less than the suggested number of servings? If so, which one(s)?
- Which foods were the hardest to categorize? Why?
- How can oils be part of a healthy diet? (Oils are not considered a food group, but they are an important source of nutrients. Oils are high in calories and it is recommended that only small amounts be consumed in a healthy diet. Oils contain some fatty acids that are necessary for health—called “essential fatty acids.” Oils are the major source of vitamin E in typical American diets.)
- Why do you think it is important to eat foods in each of these food groups every day? (No single food provides all of the nutrients we need to grow and develop.)
- What are some of the ways our bodies grow? (This is an opportunity to assess student knowledge about different ways the human body matures.)
- Tell students they are going to play a game to learn more about the role each food group plays in the body. Have students work in pairs. Give each pair one set of What Food Group Am I? Cards. Students should write down their answers. Review as a class. (Answers: Card 1–Grains Group; 2–Vegetable Group; 3–Fruit Group; 4–Dairy Group; 5–Protein Group).
- Students now know why each food group is important. Next, take a closer look at the number of servings they ate from each food group during a 24-hour period by discussing the following questions:
- How do you think the number of servings you ate in each food group compares with the average American?
- How do you think our class compares with the average American?
- The average American generally has an unbalanced diet when compared with the suggested servings from MyPlate. Discuss:
- What does the word diet mean? (It refers to the foods we eat and drink every day. It is not a weight-loss program.)
- What does it mean to have a nutritionally sound diet? (It means eating a variety of foods in the right amounts to get the nutrients and the calories we need daily.)
- How many of you believe you have a nutritionally sound diet? Why or why not?
- Have students examine the MyPlate Activity Poster and consider whether their typical “plate” at home or at school matches up with the MyPlate model. Discuss the following:
- How do you think the number of servings you ate in each food group compares with MyPlate?
- How do our class averages compare with MyPlate?
- What are some of the things all of us could do to make sure we are eating a nutritionally sound diet?
- How can what you learned about your food choices help you in the future? (Be sure students understand that a healthy diet does not mean eliminating the foods they like. There are no good or bad foods as long as there is variety and moderation. A diet, however, becomes distorted when sugars and fats are eaten in excess, resulting in a high-calorie, low-nutrient diet.)
- What will you share with your family and friends about a nutritionally sound diet?
Ask students to collect data for an entire week and use averages to complete the tables and draw conclusions about their personal food choices. Have students graph their averages for each food group/category. Ask them to compare their 24-hour data to their one-week data. Did their diet look healthier over a week? Did their diet change as a result of this activity?
Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of the MyPlate food groups, and ask each to create a mobile for their food group. The mobile should include: the name of the food group, the suggested number of servings, the main nutrient provided (vitamin A, vitamin C, protein, calcium, B vitamins, carbohydrates), the importance of the main nutrient for growth and development, and some of the foods within the food group.
Discuss some of the things that may influence what we eat, such as environment (rural, urban, coastal), television, advertisements, and culture. Have students analyze TV or magazine ads about food and identify where each food belongs in MyPlate.
Create a MyPlate display for the class. Ask students to cut out pictures or bring in their favorite foods from home. Have students place the foods in the correct food group or category. Discuss what kind of imbalance would result if the diet of this class included only their favorite food choices.
Although water is not included in any of the food groups, it is important to the human body. Have students research the importance of water in maintaining good health. (Water is a major ingredient of blood and other body fluids; it carries nutrients from foods throughout the body, and it helps digest food, eliminate waste, and regulate body temperature.)
Further explore the importance of a balanced diet in human health and what this means for vulnerable populations around the world using the lesson plan Hunger and Malnutrition.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- MyPlate illustrates the necessary food components of a healthy diet, which includes a variety of foods from all five food groups and balanced proportions from each group.
- The five food groups illustrated on MyPlate are: Vegetable, Fruit, Grains, Protein, and Dairy.
- Different foods provide different nutrients, and reading food labels can help identify which foods best meet nutritional needs.
- It is important to consider serving size when evaluating the quality of your diet.