To help people make smart food choices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designed an easy-to-follow symbol: MyPlate. The plate graphic, with its different food groups, is a reminder of what — and how much — we should put on our plates to stay healthy.

How MyPlate Works

MyPlate has sections for vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein foods, as well as a "cup" on the side for dairy. Each section is color coded (green for veggies, red for fruits, orange for grains, purple for protein, and blue for dairy) so you can see at a glance how much of these foods to eat.

Myplate reminds us to:

  • Choose variety: The best meals have a balance of items from different food groups.
  • Make half of your plate vegetables and fruits.
  • Make at least half of your grain servings whole grains.
  • Drink fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk and water instead of soda, sports drinks, and other sugary drinks.
  • Avoid large portions.

Five Food Groups

Different food groups have different nutrients and health benefits. If you regularly skip a group, over time you won't get the best nutrition.

1. Vegetables

The vegetable portion of MyPlate is shown in green. It's one of the largest sections on the plate. That's because vegetables provide many of the vitamins and minerals we need for good health. Veggies are naturally low in calories, and the fiber in them helps us feel full.

Choosing variety is important when it comes to vegetables: Dark green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, and kale) provide different nutrients from orange and red vegetables (like squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes). The "eat your colors" message that you might have learned in grade school is a good one to follow throughout your life.

2. Fruits

Like veggies, fruits have vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The red section of MyPlate is slightly smaller than the green, but together fruits and veggies should fill half your plate. Whole fruit is the best choice: Fruit juices have more sugar and calories per serving than whole fruit, and you're not getting the fiber.

As with veggies, it's good to mix up your fruit choices: a colorful fruit cup is more than just pretty — it's a nutrition powerhouse.

3. Grains

The orange section of MyPlate is about one quarter of the plate. Whole grains (like whole-wheat flour) are more nutritious and have lots of dietary fiber that can help you feel fuller longer. Refined grains (white flour) are processed, removing vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Most refined grains are enriched, which means that some of the nutrients, but not fiber, are added back after processing.

At least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, or oatmeal.

4. Protein

High-protein foods help the body build and maintain its tissues. They also have important vitamins and minerals, like iron.

The purple section of MyPlate is about a quarter of the plate. Foods high in protein include beef, poultry, seafood, dry beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Tofu and veggie burgers or vegetarian meat substitutes are also good sources of protein. When eating meats, choose lean or low-fat options.

5. Dairy

The blue circle on the MyPlate graphic represents dairy products that are rich in calcium, like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium-fortified soy milk is also included in the dairy group. Calcium builds strong bones and teeth. Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products most of the time.

The blue circle shows dairy as a "side" to your meal, like a glass of milk. But dairy can be part of your meal, like a cheese quesadilla, or served as a snack or dessert. Yogurt with fresh fruit or a fruit smoothie made with low-fat milk make great desserts.

How to Make it Work for You

It's easy to follow the MyPlate graphic if you're eating a "meat, starch, and veg" meal where everything is prepared separately.

But what if you're having a sandwich or a meal that mixes different foods together, like a salad, pasta dish, stew, or stir-fry? That's when you need to use the principles behind the plate as a guide instead of copying it exactly.

For a sandwich, let MyPlate guide you on what to choose. A healthy sandwich might start with two slices of whole-wheat bread — your grains. Add a slice of meat, cheese, or other protein. Then fill the sandwich with vegetables like lettuce, tomato, or grated carrots. Add a side of fruit and a cup of low-fat white milk and you've got your balanced meal.

For one-dish meals (or salads), make sure that half of what you're eating are vegetables and fruits, about a quarter is lean protein, and a quarter is grain, preferably whole grain. For example, a spaghetti dish could be whole-wheat pasta with a meatball, tossed with chopped tomato along with other veggies, like spinach or carrots. A stir-fry might be mixed veggies with a few pieces of tofu or chicken and brown rice. Avoid or limit high-fat sauces (like cream sauces) in one-dish meals and don't add too much dressing to salads.

MyPlate is only a guide. Not every meal you eat will have every food group, but try to include three or more. Take breakfast, for example: If you have a whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, add some fruit and maybe a glass of milk. You can make up any missing food groups, like veggies, later in the day.

More Tips on Eating Right

The USDA's MyPlate website offers lots of healthy living guidelines. Visit to get personalized recommendations about which foods to eat and how much.

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