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Professional Development

Research-based nutrition information, resources and practical strategies to support communities in healthy eating.

The team of Community Nutrition Advisers at HealthyEating.org offer in-person training to local schools and communities in a variety of topic areas. For online help with nutrition topics and answers to frequently asked questions, registered dietitian nutritionists created the following primer. These key nutrition topics lay a foundation for learning and can be used to enhance teaching and understanding of curriculum and community education materials available from HealthyEating.org.


Healthy Eating Patterns

Healthy eating patterns encompass all food and beverage choices over time, providing an adaptable, personalized framework tailored to preferences, culture, traditions, and budget. Choose a variety of nutrient-rich foods from the food groups—dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and protein—to build healthy eating patterns that aid in optimal growth and development and reduce the risk of chronic disease.


What is the basis of healthy eating recommendations?

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans serve as the evidence-based foundation for nutrition recommendations for the public. Its main purpose is to inform the development of federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs. The Dietary Guidelines, which is updated every 5 years to reflect advancements in scientific knowledge, is a critical tool for professionals to help Americans make healthy choices in their daily lives to help prevent chronic disease and enjoy a healthy diet.

How do people’s eating habits compare to the recommendations?

Most children and their families fall short of eating the recommended dairy, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. The nutrients in these foods are important for growth and development in children, as well as for reducing the risk of health issues like diabetes in children and adults. These nutrients are of public health concern due to under-consumption: vitamin D, calcium, potassium and fiber.

How do people’s eating habits compare to the recommendations?

Most children and their families fall short of eating the recommended dairy, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. The nutrients in these foods are important for growth and development in children, as well as for reducing the risk of health issues like diabetes in children and adults. These nutrients are of public health concern due to under-consumption: vitamin D, calcium, potassium and fiber.

How does a food grouping system support nutrition education?

A food grouping system is a tool that makes detailed dietary recommendations simple. MyPlate is a visual symbol of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to help remind people to build healthy eating patterns across all food groups. Foods that have similar nutrients are grouped together. Each food group offers unique benefits that the other groups may not provide. Everything children and adults eat and drink matters—foods from all food groups are needed to form the foundation of healthy eating patterns.

Are vegetarian diets appropriate for children?

Generally, vegetarian diets that include some animal foods (particularly dairy foods and/or eggs) can meet the needs of growing children if the recommended amounts for each food group are consumed. If choosing a vegan diet, or one that is restricted to only plant foods and contains no animal foods, parents should consult with a physician or a registered dietitian to ensure that children get enough calories and essential nutrients needed for growth and development.

How can some children make plans to eat healthier when they don’t have access to enough food?

Hunger is a major health concern. Children should be encouraged to identify and eat foods that are available to them. Federally-assisted meal programs such as the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program are excellent opportunities for them to plan and make nutritious selections at low or no cost. Providing nutrition education and support to parents and caregivers is another way to make healthy eating easier for families and make nutritious foods more accessible.

How do the school meal programs impact children’s diets and health?

Research shows that school meal programs support student health and academics. Children who eat the National School Lunch Program are more likely to eat a greater variety of foods, providing nutrients that are often missing from children’s diets. Nearly 75 percent of children do not eat enough dairy, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. School lunches are designed to contribute one-third of a child’s daily nutrient needs. School breakfast contributes 20–25 percent of a child’s daily needs.


Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is associated with better health, diet quality, behavior and academic benefits. Skipping breakfast is associated with decreased cognitive performance; lower diet quality; and low intakes of fiber, folate, iron and calcium. Aim to include a variety of foods from at least three food groups for a healthy breakfast.

How do I encourage students to eat breakfast?

Whether it’s back-to-school time, National School Breakfast Week, or gearing up for testing, the time is always right to encourage a balanced breakfast. Teachers can support students by encouraging the consumption of breakfast and providing helpful suggestions to establish daily habits.

How can breakfast impact student behavior?

Attendance at school is essential for academic success. Yet chronic absenteeism, or missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason, excused or unexcused, is negatively impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of California kids. Eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function, reduced absenteeism and better grades.

What is the School Breakfast Program and how does it work?

Most schools participate in the national School Breakfast Program, which provides nutritious breakfast for children at low or no cost. All meals served as part of the School Breakfast Program must meet nutrient and quality standards. Connect with your district or school foodservice team about what they offer and eligibility requirements.

How can I share the benefits of the School Breakfast Program with families?

Consider connecting families to school meals as an option for those students who otherwise go without breakfast due to busy schedules or inability to provide balanced meals. Families play a vital role in helping children have access to a healthy breakfast. For caregivers and families, here is a resource on the nutritional benefits of school breakfast and ways to support children.

How can the School Breakfast Program impact students’ food choices?

A large study showed that children who consumed school breakfast daily reported higher intakes of healthy foods—including dairy, vegetables, fruits and whole grains—as well as higher intakes of dietary fiber and calcium, compared to those who did not eat school breakfast daily.


Snacks may provide about one-quarter of the nutrients and calories children consume each day. Most children and adults do not meet the daily recommended amounts of dairy, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Aim to combine two or more food groups during snack time as a mini meal to help bridge nutrient gaps.

What role do snacks play in healthy eating patterns?

Most American children are eating high-calorie snacks that offer little nutrition. Smart snacking can play a key role in healthy eating patterns. Snacks from the food groups are a great way for children and adolescents to meet their daily nutrient requirements and have energy throughout the day.

What is nutrient density and why does it matter?

Nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide a high level of nutrition for the calories provided. Eating the recommended amounts of nutrient-dense foods from each food group is the best approach to building a healthy eating pattern. Foods that are calorie-dense and contain high amounts of fats, added sugar, or salt with minimal nutrients should be eaten less often.

What are schools doing to ensure snacks sold on school campus are nutritionally adequate?

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires minimum nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, other than the federally supported meals programs. In many instances, school districts have opted to go above and beyond state and federal nutrition standards. Local school wellness policies, which are required, support these standards in school meal programs, during fundraisers, at class parties and in concessions.


All beverage choices matter and contribute to total calorie intake and hydration. Focusing on nutrient-rich beverages can help build healthy eating patterns.

What kind of beverages fit in the dairy group?

Dairy milk plays an important role in supporting health throughout childhood and adolescence. With the exception of fortified soy beverage, drinks made with almonds and other nuts, rice or coconuts often contain little to no protein and lack other key nutrients important to support optimal growth. For example, dairy milk (including lactose-free dairy milk) has the most balanced distribution of energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat; provides hydration; and contains many of the nutrients of concern in the American diet, including calcium, vitamin D and potassium.

Should children be drinking chocolate milk?

All milk contains a unique combination of key nutrients important for children’s growth and development. Chocolate milk has between 8 and 12 additional grams of sugar added. Research shows that school-aged children who drink flavored milk do not eat more added sugars compared to children who do not drink milk. When teaching nutrition, help students look at their food choices and identify “extras” they can trade up for more nutritious foods and beverages from the food groups.

Should children be drinking sports recovery drinks?

Good sports nutrition, like all good nutrition, starts with a balanced diet that includes food from all the food groups: dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and protein. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that children don’t need sports and energy drinks to replace electrolytes lost in sweat. These beverages offer a lot of sugar with few nutrients. Unless children are doing hard physical activity for more than an hour, water is usually adequate for hydration.

Farm to You

California’s year-round growing season and rich agricultural heritage make it the ideal state to explore agriculture education! Farm to School programs help increase food literacy, bring nutrition to life and elevate the health of children and communities while supporting local farmers, local agriculture and local economies.

What is Farm to School?

Farm to School programs bring locally sourced and produced foods to school cafeterias while incorporating food literacy and nutrition education. Fresh, local food is growing in popularity among consumers and in schools across the state. In California, 55 percent of school districts are using local and regional foods to serve healthy meals to children.

What makes California’s agriculture unique?

California is the leading agricultural state in the nation, producing more than 400 commodities at farms in all 58 counties across the state. California produces 50 percent of US-grown fruits, vegetables and nuts, plus nearly 20 percent of the nation’s supply of milk.

How can I link nutrition and agriculture education?

School gardens, assemblies like Mobile Dairy Classroom and project-based lessons that explore the food system or careers in agriculture are all examples of activities that support Farm to School. When thinking about local foods, it’s easy to concentrate on fruits and vegetables, but balance discussions to include all food groups. For instance, do students know that milk goes from cow to cafeteria (or store) in about two days? Or that each year 5 billion pounds of rice are produced in California?

Commonly Miscategorized Foods

  • Consistent with USDA’s food grouping system at ChooseMyPlate.gov.
  • “Extras”: Foods that have few or no nutrients; not a food group.
  • Water: An important beverage to drink for hydration and in response to thirst; water does not belong to any food group, nor is it “extra.”
  • Popcorn and Pretzels: While many associate popcorn and pretzels with snack foods like chips, they are part of the Grains group. Popcorn is a whole grain and high in fiber; when eaten plain or with minimal additives, it is a healthy choice. Pretzels that are made with whole-wheat flour and are unsalted provide beneficial fiber with very little added sodium.
  • Tomatoes and Avocados: Botanically fruits, tomatoes and avocados are classified in the Vegetables group because they are most often eaten with, and prepared like, other vegetables.
  • Pickles: While pickles are made from cucumbers (a vegetable) the processing destroys some of the nutrients. The final product is not rich in nutrients and so becomes “extra,” not part of a food group.
  • Pudding and Ice Cream: When made with milk, pudding and ice cream belong in the Dairy group because of the high calcium content. They are considered a milk-based dessert, providing nutrients and also some added sugar.
  • Hot Cocoa: When made with milk, cocoa belongs in the Dairy group because of its high calcium content. This is not the case when it is made with water; then it is classified as “extra.”
  • Eggs: Many grocery stores put dairy and eggs together, but these foods belong to separate food groups. Eggs come from hens, are classified in the Protein group, and are a good source of protein.
  • Beans: Beans such as pinto, lima and lentil are placed in two food groups because of their unique nutrient content: vegetables and protein. To simplify the food classification process for students, HealthyEating.org programs place beans only in the protein group. This placement is particularly important for students who are vegetarian, eating beans as a primary source of protein and iron.
  • Fruit Rolls and Fruit Snacks: The high sugar content of most fruit-snack products makes them “extras.” It is always best to eat fresh, frozen, canned or dried real fruits.
  • Bacon and Beef Jerky: Even though they are derived from meat, both count as “extras.” Bacon primarily provides fat, and beef jerky is high in sodium.
  • Tea/Coffee: Because they contain no calories or nutrients, these beverages are considered “extras.”
  • Non-Dairy Beverages: With the exception of fortified soy beverage, drinks made with almonds and other nuts, rice, or coconuts vary significantly in their nutrient content. These beverages often contain little to no protein or key nutrients characteristic of the dairy group. Though they are not part of a food group, the nutrition facts label can confirm if a non-dairy beverage is a source of calcium and other nutrients.