How does your dinner plate stack up against MyPlate, the federal government’s picture (heavily promoted by Michelle Obama) of how we should eat for good health?

MyPlate (above) recommends filling half your plate with vegetables and fruits at each meal. But if you’re like much of the country, your plate may look a bit more like this:

Spaghetti plate

Only about one in 10 Americans consumes enough fruits and vegetables, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is especially disappointing, say nutritionists, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) swapped the old food pyramid for MyPlate in part to stress that half of every meal should consist of  produce.

“If we could get people to change their diet in this one way, that would be half the battle,” says Christopher D. Gardener, PhD, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and a professor of medicine at Stanford University. “The hope was that seeing a plate rather than an abstract shape would make that goal more real.”

MyPlate is designed for adults and kids over 2. With the average child bombarded every day with two hours of media messages pushing sugary food and drinks, it’s tough to get them to  pay attention to healthy eating, says Lorrene Ritchie, PhD, RD, the inaugural director of the Nutrition Policy Institute in the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. But, Ritchie says, that’s the cultural shift that needs to happen to fight the obesity epidemic.  (Photo: Seregam/Shutterstock)

Making over your plate

salmon avocado salad

So how can you get your breakfast, lunch and dinner to look more like MyPlate? 

For starters, you’ll need to get 1 ½ to 2 cups’ worth of fruit a day and 2 to 3 cups’ worth of veggies, including a weekly mix of  dark green, orange and starchy veggies as well as beans and peas, according to MyPlate guidelines. You should also devote one-quarter of each meal to a grain (preferably a whole grain) and a little more than one-quarter to a protein, especially plant-based protein, lean meat or poultry, fish or low-fat milk. (Of course, you’ll drink your milk in a glass or get it in your cereal bowl, but it still counts as being “on your plate.” Ditto for the lettuce and tomato in your sandwich and the berries on your oatmeal.)

Here are some tips from the USDA and other experts on how to fill half your “plate” with produce, perhaps the biggest challenge for many of us:

  • Start your dinner with a green salad. According to Keri Gans, RDN, writing on the website Sharecare, “It’s an opportunity to fill yourself up as well as add fiber and other nutrients to your meal.”
  • Make your salads colorful, with slices of red pepper, grated carrots, chopped red or purple cabbage and more.
  • Sneak some veggies into you smoothies. Connie Schneider, PhD, RD, director of the California state nutrition program, recommends adding spinach to strawberry banana smoothies. Diabetes specialist Daniel Nadeau, MD, suggests making breakfast smoothies with 2 cups of wild blueberries, a cup of spinach and a banana, along with a tablespoon of raw cacao nibs, a teaspoon of turmeric and a scoop of vegan protein powder. (Avoid store-bought smoothies, which tend to be loaded with sugar and calories.)
  • Add vegetables to sauces, soups and pasta dishes.
  • Try shredded cabbage in burritos and tacos. 
  • Grate carrots into meatloaves and pasta sauce.
  • Add puréed cauliflower or chick peas to mashed potatoes.
  • Stir-fry a rainbow mix of vegetables and serve them over brown rice.
  • Put fresh or frozen berries in your breakfast cereal (thaw frozen berries first, of course).
  • Pack a piece of fruit or cut-up carrots, celery or bell peppers with your lunch.
  • Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter for snacking (fruit in the back of the fridge or in a drawer is less likely to be eaten — out of sight, out of mind). Also keep containers of cut-up fruits and veggies front-and-center in the fridge. For more nutrients and fiber, choose fruit rather than fruit juice most of the time. (Photo: eugena-klykova/Shutterstock)

Related: 10 Foods to Eat for Eye Health

As for other tips on making MyPlate your plate, try to:

Eat more whole grains. At least half of the grains you consume should be whole grains, according to MyPlate guidelines. Food experts such as Michael Pollan, director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, have declared most white bread to be about as nutritionally beneficial as a candy bar. Opt for bread with the word “whole” in the first ingredient, and favor brown rice and high fiber grains such as quinoa.

Related: The Skinny On Carbs: Are They Diet Friends or Foes?

Eat less red meat and more chicken, fish and plant-based proteins, which can include nuts, soy and beans. Stanford’s Gardener likes to encourage people to eat almonds for their heart-healthy oil and fiber.

Choose heart-healthy oils, such as olive oil or sunflower oil. Between eating nuts and cooking with oil, most people can easily get their 4 or 5 recommended teaspoonfuls, experts say.

Use smaller plates. American plate sizes have grown 3 or more inches in circumference since the 1960s. Portions look bigger on smaller plates, which may help you eat less. olive oil in carafe

Olive oil in carafe (Angel Simon/Shutterstock)

Cool tools

MyPlate offers personal advice based on your age, height, weight and activity level. Enter your stats at The Daily Food Plan and the tool will advise you how much to eat of each food group. You can also try the site’s Supertracker feature, which helps you track your diet and physical activity.

If you’re confused by portion sizes, check out MyPlate’s “portion distortion” tool. Richie also recommends the portion size infographic published by the California Dairy Council, which may be easier to use.

Want more examples of what a MyPlate meal looks like? “I did a study of our clients in California who use MyPlate,” says Schneider of California's state nutrition program, “and found they wanted to see examples of real food on a plate rather than an infographic. So we developed a series of photographs of different plates [including one with fast food and stir-fry] to address their concern. Consumers said they wanted real food, not fancy, expensive recipes and ingredients.” (Photo: University of California) Here’s one example of MyPlate the program used:

A MyHealthyPlate developed at the University of California

Battle of the infographics

The creation of MyPlate set off a wave of infighting among nutrition experts, including those at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Gardner says some experts at Harvard criticized the infographic for not emphasizing heart healthy oils and whole grains clearly in the picture.

“USDA made the infographic simpler, but simplicity also takes information away,” says Gardner. MyPlate, he says, also failed to change “the byzantine architecture of the information below the infographic. I show kids in my classes how complicated it can be to find out, for example, alternative sources of protein and the portion size.”

In response, Harvard nutrition experts created their own healthy-dining plate

Healthy Eating Plate from the Harvard School of Public Health

"Like the U.S. government's MyPlate, the Healthy Eating Plate is simple and easy to understand — and it addresses important deficiencies in the MyPlate icon," Harvard announced in a press release in September 2011.

Among other things, Harvard experts made vegetables more prominent, advised avoiding sugary drinks and processed meats and added icons to represent healthy oils, drinking water and exercise.  (Photo: Healthy Eating Plate/Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health)

Related: Want to Cut Your Risk of Five Major Killers? Eat Berries

Kathryn Olney is a freelance writer and editor who has served as a reporter and editor for California, San Francisco and Mother Jones magazines.