Sizing Up Your Plate with MyPlate

by Theresa Ferrari, Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development

Happy birthday, MyPlate! MyPlate is 10 years old this year. It’s a good reminder to think about how we can use MyPlate concepts. How does your plate stack up to MyPlate?

Plate divided in sectionsWhat is MyPlate? MyPlate is a nutritional food guide that was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help people become more aware of what they eat and to assist them in making better food choices. The MyPlate icon shows the five food groups: Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein Foods, and Dairy. It features a simple picture of a plate, which offers a visual cue that is easy to relate to, with sections of a plate representing how much of each food group people should consume relative to the other groups.

The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes the importance of an overall healthy eating pattern with all five groups as key building blocks. Each food group includes a variety of foods that are similar in nutritional makeup, and each group plays an important role in an overall healthy eating pattern.

Current intakes show that from an early age, dietary patterns are not aligned with the Dietary Guidelines.

  • Average intakes for 5- to 8-year-olds are generally within the range of recommended intakes for protein, fruits, and grains (although this is achieved with refined grains, not whole grains), but below in vegetables and dairy.
  • Diet quality declines for the 9- to 13-year-old and 14- to 18-year-old age groups. Grains are within the recommended range, again with whole grains below recommended amounts. Protein foods are at the lower limit of the recommended intake (with older teen girls dropping below). Fruit intake drops, and vegetables and dairy remain low.
  • The difference between recommended food group amounts and current intakes is greater for adolescents ages 14 through 18 than for any other age group across the lifespan. As a result, adolescents are at greater risk of dietary inadequacy than are other age groups.
  • Vegetable intake is especially low and increasing vegetable consumption tends to be particularly difficult. In addition, most diets exceed the recommended limits for added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.

A recent study found that diets of children in the U.S. have improved modestly but remain poor for most. This improvement in diet quality is promising. However, another report found that more than a third of U.S. children and adolescents consumed fast food. Other researchers have examined sugar-sweetened beverages and junk foods. The results of these studies are cause for concern because fast food,  sugar-sweetened beverages, and junk foods have been associated with higher caloric intake and poorer diet quality. These dietary patterns contribute to overweight and obesity, as well as increasing the risk for chronic diseases later in life.

MyPlate Talking Pointsseveral fresh vegetables

  • Fruits – Make half your plate fruits and vegetables: Focus on whole fruits.
  • Vegetables – Make half your plate fruits and vegetables: Vary your veggies.
  • Grains – Make half your grains whole grains.
  • Protein – Vary your protein routine. Choose protein foods like beans, fish, lean meats, and nuts.
  • Dairy – Move to low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt. Drink fat free or low-fat milk or water instead of sugary drinks.

MyPlate is not perfect–for one thing, the size of the plate matters. The specific amounts of food needed in each group vary by age, gender, and activity level; the Dietary Guidelines provides more detailed information on this topic. Some foods contain ingredients from multiple groups, making them difficult to classify.

The MyPlate icon focuses on incorporating healthful foods; however, all foods in a group are not the same. Foods vary in their nutrient density, that is, the amount of key nutrients they provide relative to the energy (calories) they provide. The key is choosing a variety of foods and beverages from each food group. Nutrients to encourage include protein, fiber, and a range of vitamins and minerals, while those to limit are saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. That includes cakes, cookies, ice cream, candies, sweetened drinks, and fatty meats like sausages, bacon, and hot dogs. Use these foods as occasional treats but not everyday foods (think of them as “sometimes foods”). Although they do not identify the nutrient density as such, the nutrition facts label can help in identifying specific nutrient content.

Today’s Takeaway: Developing healthy eating habits can go a long way to ensure a better lifestyle now and in the future. MyPlate provides a guide for making healthful choices.


Drewnowski, A. (2009). Defining nutrient density: Development and validation of the Nutrient rick Foods Index. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 28(4) 421S–426S.

Fryar, C. D., Carroll, M. D., Ahluwalia, N., & Ogden, C. L. (2020). Fast food intake among children and adolescents in the United States, 2015–2018 (NCHS Data Brief No. 375).

Gold, A., Larson, M., Tucker, J., & Strang, M. (2017). Classroom nutrition education combined with fruit and vegetable taste testing improves children’s dietary intake. Journal of School Health, 87(2), 106–113.

Leung, C. W., DiMatteo, S. G., Gosliner, W. A., & Ritchie, L. D. (2018). Sugar-sweetened beverage and water intake in relation to diet quality in U.S. children. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 54(3), 394–402.

Liu, J., Rehm, C. D., Onopa, J., & Mozaffarian, D. (2020). Trends in diet quality among youth in the United States, 1999-2016. Journal of the American Medical Association, 323(12), 1161–1174.

Liu, J., Lee, Y., Micha, R., Li, Y., & Mozaffarian, D. (2021). Trends in junk food consumption among US children and adults, 2001-2018. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, nqab129.

Snelling, A. M., Newman, C., Ellsworth, D., Kalicki, M. Guthrie, J., Mancino. L., Malloy, E., Van Dyke, H., George, S., & Nash, K. (2017). Using a taste test intervention to promote vegetable consumption. Health Behavior and Policy Review, 4(1), 67–75.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. MyPlate.

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Service. (2020). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025 (9th ed.).

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025

When thinking about health, physical health is likely one of the first aspects to come to mind, and the connection of food to physical health is not far behind. The foods we eat and the beverages we drink have a big impact on our health. However, we know that over time the eating patterns in the U.S. have remained below recommendations, while the science linking food and health has only become stronger. In the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 you will find advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and help prevent chronic disease.

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans at least every 5 years, based on current science. The guidelines translate science into recommendations to help people make healthy choices. The new edition for 2020-2025 is the first set of guidelines that provide guidance for healthy dietary patterns by life stage, from birth through older adulthood. It’s never too early or too late to eat healthy!

As this graph shows, teens are the least likely age group to have a healthy diet.

graph showing adherence to dietary guidelines by age group

Teens are the least likely age group to have a healthy diet.

Healthy eating is not about following a particular diet for a short amount of time, but rather it’s about making healthy choices throughout life. A healthy dietary pattern is not a rigid prescription, it’s about a pattern of eating over time. The Dietary Guidelines provides a framework with a set of principles. These principles allow for flexibility to take into account personal preferences and cultural traditions.

How do we make every bite count? Making choices rich in nutrients should be the first choice. Nutrients are the building blocks of food, such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. When foods have a lot of nutrients, we say they are nutrient dense.

Small changes to individual parts of a meal can make a big difference. Let’s take a meal that is a favorite for many – a burrito bowl. The table below shows a comparison of two burrito bowls. Looking at the photos, they may seem pretty similar. But on closer examination, the comparison illustrates how the more nutrient-dense choices significantly improve the nutritional profile of the meal. The result of these changes is reflected in the calories count, as well as in lower amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium.

Typical Burrito Bowl (1,120 calories)

Nutrient-Dense Burrito Bowl (715 calories)

Typical Burrito Bowl Total Calories = 1,120 Nutrient-Dense Burrito Bowl Total Calories = 715
White rice (1½ cups) Brown rice (1 cup) + Romaine lettuce (½ cup)
Black beans (⅓ cup) Black beans, reduced sodium (⅓ cup)
Chicken cooked w/ sauce (2 ounces) Grilled chicken w/ spice rub (2 ounces)
No grilled vegetables Added grilled vegetables (⅓ cup)
Guacamole (½ cup) Sliced avocado (5 slices)
Jarred salsa (¼ cup) Fresh salsa/pico de gallo (¼ cup)
Sour cream (¼ cup) No sour cream
Cheese (⅓ cup) Reduced-fat cheese (⅓ cup)
Jalapeño (5 slices) Jalapeño (5 slices)
Iced tea with sugar (16 ounces) Iced tea, no sugar (16 ounces)

I hope this comparison has given you a sense of how small changes in the choices you make can produce big results and improve the nutrient density of a meal. Were you surprised by the difference in the number of calories? The nutrient density and healthfulness of what people eat and drink often is determined ultimately by how a food item, dish, or meal is prepared, whether at home and away from home, and the extent to which it features fresh versus processed foods. Look back at our posts on Tips for Taco Tuesday and Pizza with Pizazz for some ideas for foods you can prepare at home.

Today’s Take-Away: When it comes to nutrient density, remember that small changes can produce big results. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers some additional tips for choosing a nutrient-rich diet.

The topic of making healthy food choices is too big for one blog post – this is just a small bite. We’ll return to this topic in the future, so come back for more information and ideas.

Yours in Health,


Theresa Ferrari, Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development

Adapted from: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025