Providing healthy meals for their children is the goal of most parents. But with picky eaters, hectic schedules and constantly changing dietary needs and tastes, that can be a difficult task. Many of us are familiar with the food pyramid and the major food groups, but that big chart is cumbersome and at times confusing. That’s why the USDA took the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and created MyPlate, a new colorful, simple icon that parents can use to develop healthy eating habits for their children and the entire family.
“If you take the pyramid and shake it out onto a plate, that’s MyPlate,” says Dr. Robert Post, Deputy Director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “It’s the same food but shown in a different way.” The need for Americans, especially children, to eat healthy meals is more important than ever. As Post explains, as of 2007 and 2008, obesity affects 10 percent of children ages 2 to 5, 20 percent of children 6 to 11 and 18 percent of children ages 12 to 19.
Here’s how you can use MyPlate to make sure your child is getting everything he needs.
Let the Plate Guide You
Visit choosemyplate.gov and print out a copy of MyPlate to hang on your fridge, and start building a better plate. Not only does the site break down the food groups in a simple way, it also gives you great tips for a healthy lifestyle.
“MyPlate gives you tips to 1) make at least half your grains whole grains; 2) vary your vegetables; 3) focus on fruit; 4) get your calcium-rich foods; 5) find your balance between food and physical activity; and 6) keep food safe to eat. Taken together, this is an attempt to better educate the parent, who is the initial provider of food to the young child,” says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, Professor and Chair of Neonatology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia.
Build a Healthy Plate
“We have created food patterns for how you can get your food groups every day,” Post says. “We know that it’s a very good thing, if you don’t get them daily, to think about weekly. Over a week, we hope that you’ve gotten enough of your fruits and vegetables, for example.”
This is what your child’s plate should include:
Fruit includes any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice. Your fruit can be fresh, frozen, canned, dried, whole, cut or pureed. The goal is to provide your child with vital nutrients such as dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium and vitamin C. Fruit can provide all of these without a lot of fat, sodium or calories, and no cholesterol.
This group is all about variety and color. Eat a salad, heat up vegetable soup from a can, or order veggies as a side item at a restaurant. Work veggies into your daily routine so they fill more than one-quarter of your plate, leaving the rest of that side of the plate for your fruit. Choose veggies that are colorful, such as red peppers, dark green spinach, or yellow squash.
The USDA also suggests buying your vegetables in season, not only to save on cost but also to maximize the flavor. They don’t have to be fresh, though, to be good for you. Stock up on canned vegetables (beans, mushrooms, beets), particularly those labeled as reduced or low sodium, as well as frozen vegetables that can be quickly heated.
- Protein Foods
This group includes both animal (meat, poultry, seafood and eggs) and plant sources (beans, peas, soy products, nuts and seeds). The USDA recommends people ages 9 and older eat 5 to 7 ounces of protein foods each day, including at least 8 ounces of cooked seafood per week. Opt for lean cuts of meat and poultry, and choose seafood that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Also check the sodium levels on processed meats like deli meat and hot dogs so your child does not get too much.
“We can get our protein from a variety of sources,” Post says. “We are emphasizing more seafood and accommodating vegans and vegetarians because we recognize it’s not a prescription. It’s about choosing a variety of foods.”
This includes any food made from wheat, rice, oats, barley or other cereal grain. The goal is to make at least half your grains whole for added health benefits. “Whole grain” simply means that you are eating the entire grain kernel. You can find whole-grain versions of bread, pasta, cereals, oatmeal and even tortillas. Choose brown and wild rice instead of white. The other half of your grains portion can be refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, grits and pretzels.
The dairy group has become more inclusive than in the food pyramid days. “Adults who don’t drink milk anymore were confused by the food pyramid,” Post says. “Dairy is more than milk and milk products. We’re talking about cheese and yogurt as other great sources.”
“Parents can use the tips on ChooseMyPlate.gov to learn how to make veggies a good nutritional value and more appealing, and how to keep veggies safe,” Bhatia says.
You can fill your child’s dairy section with milk, yogurt, cheese or fortified soy milk. Aim for 3 cups a day for older children, teens and yourself; 2½ cups for 4- to 8-year-olds; and 2 cups for 2- to 3-year-olds. Choose low-fat or fat-free versions. That way your child will get calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium and other nutrients without increasing fat intake.
Room for Treats
Although there is no section on MyPlate for treats, there is still room for them in your child’s diet. The USDA recommends that no more than 10 percent of a person’s daily intake be indulgent calories, or empty calories, which come from added sugars and solid fats. Think cake, cookies, sodas, ice cream, and anything else that tastes good but that no one needs.
“We do have those sometimes treats,” Post says. “In a 2,000-calorie standard diet, about 260 calories are your indulgent calories based on nutrition principles today. That’s about two sodas or four cookies. You still get your treat.”
Considering that Americans currently dedicate about 800 calories a day to sugars and solid fats, cutting back on those empty calories can be a big challenge, Post says. The key is moderation and education.
“Ice cream is dairy, but should be used in appropriate portions,” Bhatia says. “French fries are not considered vegetables. However, that does not mean eating french fries occasionally is taboo. We are talking about children, peer pressure, what they see and hear. Parents can avoid exposure to [these foods] or educate them and limit the intake.”
Avoid Oversized Portions
The USDA encourages people to enjoy what they eat, but eat less of it. If you cut down on your portions, you can still get all the necessary nutrients without the excess calories and fat. Choosemyplate.gov has a handy tool for determining the portions for eaters of any age. You simply plug in the person’s age, sex, weight, height and activity level, and you receive a report of how much of the food groups they need each day.
Choosemyplate.gov also will analyze your daily food intake to see if you’ve gotten enough or too much of certain ingredients. You can type in what you ate and receive a report on the breakdown. “There are different amounts that apply to you, and you need to personalize that,” Post says. “Find out if you are eating according to the dietary guidelines, whether you are consuming too much sugar.”
While we want our children to get all the nutrients they need to thrive, there is no need to encourage them to overeat.
“Do not load the plate and do not force the child to ‘finish’ because there are starving children elsewhere in the world,” Bhatia says. “An active child who is growing appropriately and is being offered healthy foods, one should not stress over it.”
Be a Role Model
Your toddler may not listen to what you say sometimes, but he probably loves copying what you do. Keep that in mind as you build your own plate. If half your plate is made of fruits and veggies, why can’t his be? “The ultimate goal is for the infant to ‘graduate’ to table foods that the family enjoys and enjoy family eating time,” Bhatia says. Try to eat a combination of what you like as well as what your child likes.
Consider having your child help you make his plate too. Using the MyPlate chart, ask your child which food would be a good choice for the dairy section. Where do the beans belong? Which is a better choice for the grains section, white bread or whole wheat?
Start Now, Do It Again
The earlier your child learns how to make healthy choices, the more likely she is to continue to make those choices. “There is evidence that shows children who are exposed to and become more aware of and adopt these practices early on are kids who have more healthy BMIs [body-mass indexes] over a lifetime and are less likely to suffer from diet-related illness,” Post says. “By the time you get to a high-schooler, you’ve got a great challenge to change behaviors. It’s a lot easier to do this earlier on when there is a great acceptance to trying a lot of foods.”
If your child is not interested in broccoli or brussels sprouts, try again, especially with picky eaters. Offer multiple choices repeatedly until you find the right fit. It may take five to seven introductions before your child will eat the food, so keep trying. Luckily there are many healthy foods to choose from. Your son may not like blueberries, but he may love strawberries.
You Have Choices
Keep in mind that MyPlate is designed not to limit what you serve, but to help you make good choices. There are a lot of options for each category on the plate, and it’s up to you to decide what works for your child and family.
“There is no prescription for our eating patterns,” Post says. “It’s a matter of mixing in cultural and taste preferences. We don’t always eat the same way every day. MyPlate is a road map for what is important.”