Pick Chow is the leading feature of the ZisBoomBah website.

Vegetables have never been lacking in the meals Boulder nutritionist Jane Reagan serves her four children, and the kids have never objected. But even she was surprised when she got an email from the kids requesting kale and red cabbage.

“I was surprised at how well-balanced their suggested meal was,” said Reagan, “how important it was for them to them to fill up all the sections of their plate.”

That “plate” was a virtual one on a computer screen, and it’s up to Reagan to turn it into an actual meal. But she figures getting the kids involved early in their meal planning and developing an understanding of how to balance the fiber, protein and fat — and limit the sugar, salt and saturated fat — can only be a good thing.

That’s why she is a consultant for ZisBoomBah, a sophisticated but kid-friendly 2-year-old Boulder company whose website is drawing national attention. The site is in the running for Michelle Obama’s nationwide Apps for Healthy Kids competition, part of her Let’s Move! Campaign to end childhood obesity. Voting in that contest, open to anyone who registers online, continues through Friday.

The site – www.zisboombah.com – includes kid-pleasing but nutritious recipes from chefs around the country, a section on suggestions for games and activities to get kids moving, a blog geared toward parents and a store featuring products that display the likenesses of Zis, Boom and Bah, the friendly ants – or “ant-vatars” who appear throughout the website.

How to vote
Check out the contestants in the “Apps for Healthy Kids” competition and vote here by the end of the day Friday.

But the real draw is the “PickChow” feature. The page has a plate divided into five sections – vegetables, dairy, grains, meat and beans, and fruit. A smaller dessert plate is just to the right of the main plant.

Kids scroll through pictures of dozens of foods available to fill up the main plate. Everything from artichokes to zucchini for the vegetable section, apples to watermelon in the fruit section. There are also some “quick picks” that fill up multiple sections, such as a grilled cheese sandwich (dairy AND grains), or turkey meatloaf (meat, veggies, dairy and grains). They drag their chosen items over onto their plate.

Colorado choices
Zisboombah is one of three Colorado contestants in the national competition. The others:
* Hungry Hiker Build-A-Meal game – Asks kids to build a nutritious meal to fuel a hiker’s journey to a mountain summit.
* How Wheat Works tool – Kids can virtually grow, harvest and mill their own kernels to create their desired wheat food.

As they add items to their plate, gauges calculate the meal’s carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber, as well as the sugar, fat and sodium. The goal is to keep all the gauges in the nutritious green zone. Meals get rated from one to five stars, and those who assemble a five-star meal get to choose a dessert.

“It’s hard to build a five-star meal,” said Reagan. “But it’s good practice for them. My kids seem to love it. They like clicking and dragging the different foods, and being able to watch that sugar meter, especially, is really helpful because that one can climb quickly.”

Once their meal is complete, their parents will get an email with the child’s suggested meal.

“They’re always excited for me to get the emails, and to have some say in what they’re going to have for dinner,” Reagan said. “It’s important for parents to follow up on that, to act on the kids suggestions. Even if it’s just one meal a week. One or two meals a week that a child is involved in planning and creating will give them more of a sense of power and more understanding of the importance of nutrition.”

The site is the creation of Boulder entrepreneur Karen Laszlo. Laszlo’s background is in marketing and finance, not nutrition, but she’s a mom who knows about the struggles of getting children to eat properly.

Ant avatars Zis, Boom and Bah help youngsters navigate through the website. Youngsters can also choose their own avatars.

“She wanted to change the way nutrition is presented to children,” said Mary Kate McKenna, product manager for the year-old company. “She wanted to kind of flip conventional wisdom about teaching children about meal planning and instead give them an online tool.”

The site is self-funded for now, but McKenna says they are looking to eventually promote ads and partnerships on the site: “We’re looking for companies that can add value to our website by offering parents coupons or discounts, so it will make the things we’re trying to promote more affordable.”

Should ZisBoomBah win the $10,000 prize for best Healthy Kids app, that money would be plowed back into the site, McKenna said.

“We would hope to start a school nutrition program where teachers could use our site as a tool in teaching the nutrition curriculum,” she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.