Zone Parenting 101 - Empower your kids to enjoy a lifetime of healthy eating
By Sue Knorr
Our three kids ranged in age from 9 to 18 when we started the Zone lifestyle about 17 years ago. They didn’t go cold turkey into the Zone from one day to the next. Instead, to help them start making better choices, I simply did not resupply the foods that weren't Zone favorable as we used them up. Since you don’t usually run out of everything at the same time, this automatically made it a gradual transition.
On every trip to the grocery store, I made a deliberate effort to replace the old favorites with the foods my kids really liked from the best Zone choices. At mealtimes I briefly explained how to mix and match proteins and carbohydrates by sight in Zone proportions. I emphasized the importance of eating some fat at every meal and snack, things like nuts and salad dressing.
I don’t advise weighing and measuring foods for most adults and certainly not for kids. It’s too tedious and sometimes defeating. Using specific-sized bowls and plates to serve particular foods works fine. It quickly becomes second nature to use a dessert-sized bowl for yogurt, a bigger bowl for leftover chili, a dinner-sized plate for a meal salad, etc.
Even our youngest, our son, picked up on it easily. He’d get home from school and eat snacks of chicken with salsa and a few corn chips, chili, turkey Sloppy Joes or a salad. He liked cooking so much that he began making lunch for his friends on snow days and vacations. One of them loved to stay for dinner when we were having low-fat chicken sausage smothered in pasta sauce. Another favorite with kids is chicken breasts baked in a mixture of salsa and black beans, and topped with shredded low-fat cheese and a few crumbled corn chips. My son became a huge fan of salads of all kinds, and still is. On the other hand, if the school lunch was something he really wanted, I'd let him buy it now and then. No worries. He eventually totally gravitated away from wanting to buy lunch at school.
We weren’t rigid about the changes. We simply kept “the bad stuff” out of the house. There were no rules about eating out or eating at friends’ houses. Everything was fair game. As time passed, my kids’ tastes changed. When Zone-friendly foods became the only choices in the kitchen, they got creative and discovered all kinds of new combinations. Variety is a good way to prevent kids from becoming bored, but I also like to maintain some stability in their diet to keep them comfortable. Stocking a few healthy staples to have on hand is helpful. Kids sometimes need to try a new food numerous times before developing a taste for it, so be patient if you little one balks at the first bite of something different. Let them help choose and prepare meals. Stay safe and keep it fun by making the tasks age appropriate, especially when sharp knives and kitchen tools are involved. My 3-year-old grandson told me the other day on a Face Time chat that we had to stop talking because he had to go “help my mom cook dinner”.
Snacks are another area in which kids can be pretty independent when you have a variety of healthy options in the fridge. Reduced-fat cheese with fruit is an easy Zone snack most kids love, but be careful not to get stuck in the cheese rut. There’s a multitude of other kid-friendly options out there. If your kids don’t like dishes that consist of foods that are mixed together, like Greek yogurt with berries and nuts mixed in, try serving the various foods by themselves on separate areas of their plates or in small kitchen prep dishes so they can pick and choose. As long as it’s a good Zone food choice, give them free rein. When my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, she used to insist on taking a hardboiled egg for her snack every day. I heard through the grapevine that it generated quite a bit of comment from the other kids. A very savvy teacher saved the day by seizing the opportunity to give the class a healthy nutrition lesson.
Here’s a short list of some more snacks that can be enjoyed by kids of any age, from toddlers to teens:
- Plain yogurt mixed with almond butter
- Garden vegetable salad with deli-style ham, and an olive oil and vinegar dressing
- Small bowl of turkey chili
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Ham and ½ apple
- Turkey, grapes and nuts
Your kids, including teens, take cues from you, probably more than you realize. Even though it might not seem so, a 13-year- old and a 16-year-old are still young and impressionable enough for your habits to greatly influence their eating choices. Eventually the dietary changes at home begin to influence the choices they make away from home. They might not admit it, but kids notice, just like adults do, how yucky they feel after eating some foods and how good they feel when they eat in the Zone. Try not to place too much focus on the fact that the whole family is changing their eating habits. Do your best to keep things low key, even if it’s very different from the usual way of eating at your house.
You’re shaking up their world in a major way. Treating the new foods and habits as matter-of-fact and not a huge deal, will go a long way to diffuse oppositional behavior that people of any age might display toward changing the foods they’ve been used to eating. Give them the healthy basics now, and that knowledge will be with them for the rest of their lives. Until next time, Happy Zoning to the whole family!