Scanning Around With Gene: The Seven Basic Food Groups

When I was growing up, the food in our house fell into three basic food groups: things that were fried, things that were boiled, and things that came out of a can. You’d think my mother, being a nurse, would know a little something about nutrition, but convenience trumped everything else. So it’s no surprise that, as far back as 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published guidelines to help Americans eat better.

Today’s images are all from an educational packet produced by General Mills in 1955 and given free to teachers for use in teaching kids about good eating habits (and general good living tips). The packet included hand-outs for the kids, posters for the classroom, and material the teacher could reproduce and send home to parents. Click on any image for a larger version.

In 1917 the USDA divided foods into five groups: milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruit; fats and fatty foods; and sugars and sugary foods. The problem back then, which is still a problem to some degree today, is that the government exists as much to promote food producers as it does to protect consumers. So the USDA was hesitant to suggest, for example, that sugar and fat should be consumed less, for fear of upsetting the sugar and fat industries.

Therefore, the idea of breaking foods into specific groups was pretty much to say, “You should eat something from every group,” rather than to suggest that any one group was better for you than another.

By 1943 the USDA had categorized foods into seven basic groups, and the message remained that a proper diet should consist of something from every group. More was definitely better back then, and all foods were considered equal; that’s why they were represented mostly in a circle sliced into equal proportions.

But General Mills went beyond the seven basic food groups in its promotional material and gave tips on good cooking habits for Mom, as well. I like this image of “food as children see it,” which apparently is from a much lower angle than adults.

Of course, there had to be a trip by Barbara and Billy to the farm to see how their food is raised and to experience those big country breakfasts so they could grow and grow. Childhood obesity was less of a problem back then.

No guide to good eating would be complete without tips on proper table manners, so there was a poster showing the contrast between “good” children and “bad” ones.

Somehow, despite all this great advice, we managed to survive the era, though it’s no surprise that heart disease and diabetes are such a problem among people who were taught these dubious principles.

Now we have the food pyramid, which does give some weight to the different food groups and suggests, for example, that fats and sugars should be taken in moderation. But the USDA diet still emphasizes meat products, carbohydrates, and dairy.

I don’t know if educators today try to teach kids about good nutrition or if we’ve given up on that as a society. I know it’s been an emphasis of Michelle Obama’s, and I applaud her for that. But I also imagine there’s a group out there that feel the government should have no role in telling parents how to feed their kids. It just goes to show you that eating and politics don’t mix very well.

Follow Gene on Twitter:

Posted on: March 11, 2011

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

10 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: The Seven Basic Food Groups

  1. I wonder why butter is so special that it gets a group all to itself, instead of hanging out with its cousins in the dairy group.

    • Butter was an important source of vitamin A before artificial vitamins. The health books when I was in one-room country school (1945-1953) didn’t recommend a lot of it, and had different numbers of servings for the various groups. By the time my kids were in school, somebody had decided seven groups were too many to remember and they’d simplified it to four, but with essentially the same resulting recommendations.

  2. Butter is a food group. Well in that case Bacon should have its very own food group too. LOL

  3. Here in the south we have the 5 topping groups. 5 toppings that can be added to food to improve it.

    1. Cheese
    2. Gravy
    3. Salsa
    4. Chili
    5. Chocolate

    Guaranteed to reduce the nutritional value of any food group and make it taste better too.

  4. I try to adhear to the 4 major food groups daily:
    1. Cheeseberger
    2. French Fries
    3. Coffee
    4. Donut

  5. I wonder what the recommended serving size was for each group or items in each group, and if those sizes varied for men/women/children. All things in moderation…

  6. a very interesting article 🙂

  7. Whether or not butter and similar fats should have had its own food group, bacon did and still does. I bet most vegans would sneak a piece of bacon once they smelled it cooking.

  8. Good stuff.

  9. I was born in 1948. My mom went for 1 meat helping, 1 starch, 1 green vegetable, 1 salad, no desert. A helping was about palm sized, your own palm, not hers! That is, except for my dad, who got whatever he wanted. Dad was the only overweight person in the family and he fixed that with the original Weight Watchers, which only really changed his portion size.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.