For more information visit MyPlate and Choose MyPlate
By Cate Moriasi
Through our blog and book, Atherosclerosis Attack, we seek to empower children to be proactive in making healthy choices and protecting their bodies from diet-related chronic diseases, starting at an early age. MyPlate, which was published by the USDA based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is a great tool that can be used to help children visualize what they need to do regarding food choices. It is simple enough for children to understand and it is not only a good conversational starter about what the child should be eating but it has the potential to stick with them for a lifetime. As in the picture below, MyPlate shows a single meal with a plate divided into four different food groups: fruits, grains, protein, vegetables and a fifth side portion of dairy. The picture also depicts portion sizes of the different food groups that should be consumed; for example, the half side of the plate should have more vegetables than fruits.
This tool is simple, even though it comes with additional recommendations such as using whole instead of refined grains, using a variety of lean proteins, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy and limiting added sugar and salt. Many people are probably using it as a mental guide to make their kids’ plates but they could push it further by involving their children. Recently, I asked my 7th grader if she had ever heard of MyPlate and her response was “yes.” “At school?” I asked. “No, you told me about it,” she responded. If MyPlate has been taught or presented at school, she somehow does not remember. However, she was able to describe the contents of MyPlate and the implied proportions perfectly. “Isn’t half of the plate supposed to be fruits and vegetables, with more vegetables than fruits? She asked and went on describe the rest of the contents.
That’s why I believe it is important for caregivers to have the conversation about this simple visual tool with children, as soon as they can understand. I regularly use MyPlate as a guide when I make my daughter’s plate or to guide her when she makes her own plate. We hadn’t talked about it for as long as I could remember, but she remembered it accurately from whenever we talked about it. Somehow children figure out, very early in life, what tastes good and what doesn’t. What they usually don’t know are the long-term effects of not eating certain things like vegetables. Most children try their best to eat vegetables because mom probably said they can’t have dessert if they don’t. This approach may work for some children who can develop an acceptance for certain foods, such that they are able to select them without mom threatening to withhold dessert.
For many other children like mine, it’s essential to give them better reasons to choose well for their bodies. The conversation about MyPlate is great for those who always seem to resist until they hear another person saying the same thing mom has been saying. MyPlate can be blamed on science. I have had to tell my daughter that, it’s not me who is trying to supposedly “torture” her with vegetables and prevent her from enjoying sweets. But rather, scientists have studied food patterns and health and they have determined that if we consume certain foods over a long time, or fail to consumer others, we are hurting our bodies, one meal at a time, even when we don’t feel the damage right now.
So how can you go about incorporating MyPlate in a food conversation with your child? The first thing is for the parent or caregiver to familiarize themselves with MyPlate. Parent and teacher resources are available to use with children starting in kindergarten. One option to start the conversation is to discuss with the child what he or she knows about eating well. Ask them what eating well means to them and why they think it is important. Follow this with a picture showing what scientists have determined as eating well, to help resolve some questions the child may have in their mind. You can then ask them about each of the five food groups, for example, the kind of vegetables she/he likes.
As you work your way through the food groups, discuss what could make each of the food groups unhealthy, for instance adding sugar, lots of fat and salt. But what can the children do about all the fun things they like to eat but are not good for their health? We can help them understand that those things can be saved for special occasions. Definitely baby steps, and not drastic changes, are needed in this regard. For example, choosing to add broccoli or another vegetable to the plate or 100 %juice instead of soda. However, the most important thing is to make these changes fun. There are several resources available in MyPlate and Choose MyPlate websites, including posters, games and recipes.
I especially like the Choose MyPlate website and would encourage you to explore it with your child and learn more about each food group. You can browse it by audience and visit MyPlate Kids’ place, among others like MyPlate, MyWins, which has ideas about making healthy choices based on your personal eating style. But my favorite is MyPlate Kitchen. You can browse MyPlate recipes based on: the course you are interested in, for example appetizer; the kind of food group and nutrition focus, for example protein with reduced sodium; the cooking equipment you want to use, for example electric grill; the cuisine, for example Mediterranean or American; and/or the amount of money you want to spend. The website also has an option of creating your own cookbook online, which might be a fun activity for some children. I hope you will find time to explore MyPlate and use available resources to help your child’s journey of making one healthy choice at a time, to safeguard their health.