Chef Anne Burrell Dishes on School Lunches and Healthy Eating

Food Network’s Anne Burrell competed in the Great American School Lunch Challenge last week.

Chef Anne Burrell
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Garces vs. Burrell.

During the Great American School Lunch Challenge last week, Food Network star Anne Burrell squared off against Iron Chef Jose Garces.

The rules were strict, and the competition intense: Two world-renowned chefs, a panel of demanding judges, very little time and even less money. Garces and Burrell had 30 minutes to prepare the most delicious, wholesome lunch, while working with a limited budget and nutrition restrictions. The meals couldn't just be healthy—they had to sound (and look) good enough to win over picky eaters.

"We have to get creative and do the very best we can," Burrell said in a video shown prior to the cook-off, stressing the need to "make something healthy that doesn't taste like cardboard." And that's not just because she wanted to best Garces. Both chefs spoke to the importance of school lunch—which is often the only good meal a student can count on. Healthy lunches help fuel the brain, so kids are able to focus better and learn more throughout the day.

Among the rules of the Challenge: Each school lunch had to consist of one entrée and two sides, which could include a dessert. No more than six preparation steps were allowed. And each entrée and side dish could use no more than 10 ingredients. The result: Garces prepared chicken and black bean chilaquile, pan-roasted sweet potatoes and a pear cup with graham topping. Burrell made roast chicken and veggie burritos, and peach cornbread with whipped vanilla yogurt.

The cook-off was emceed by longtime White House chef Sam Kass, who's also the executive director for First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative. At the end, Kass declared that Garces' meal had won. But Burrell, whose feisty personality was evident throughout the event, remained in good spirits. She later said she loved the throw down.

In an interview with U.S. News, Burrell—who's in the midst of the second season of her show "Chef Wanted With Anne Burrell"—dished on healthy eating, why we should all make time for family meals, and her signature spiky blonde hair.

How did you choose the meal you prepared today?

I looked at the available ingredients, and since I was working with a school in Texas, I was trying to do something that felt a little Tex-Mex. When we were trying to figure out desserts, I originally was going to do something with banana cream pudding. But then I saw cornbread and peaches, and I kind of loved that idea. I thought it was a yum dessert.

What's your memory of school lunches?

My mother made lunch every single day, and it was sort of a treat to get to buy. It would only happen on special days, like when there was pizza or grilled cheese sandwiches.

What's a typical lunch for you these days?

If you give me a normal day—and I can't remember the last time I had one of those—my go-to lunch is a bowl of noodles or a turkey sandwich. I'm a big fan of turkey sandwiches. But I promise you I will always be throwing some potato chips in there. I like the crunch.

If you could eliminate one food in the world, what would it be?

I would probably start with chicken nuggets. How about let's just eat chicken?

How can we all manage to eat healthfully—without sacrificing taste?

Start off with fresh ingredients, and don't be afraid of big-flavored stuff. When you're cooking from scratch, you can use salt freely and you don't get anywhere near what's in processed and canned items. Use things like vinegars, spices and spicy stuff—all of those things have big flavors. And make sure you taste your food. Food should taste good, and if it doesn't, there's something wrong.

What's your advice for eating well on a budget?

Get smart and creative about what you're doing. There are lots of things you can shop for on a budget that are still healthy and delicious. Like today, we used chicken thighs for my burritos. Chicken thighs are super cheap, and they're dark meat so they're really flavorful. Take the skin off and cut any excess fat off. It doesn't dry out like chicken breast does, and it's less than half the price. Canned beans are also a great thing, and so are whole grains, rice and lentils. You can make really flavorful things like that, and they're good for you and stick to your ribs.