First Lady Michelle Obama was adamant: No silverware necessary during the Kids' State Dinner, no matter how fancy the White House setting. "It's OK to eat with your fingers," she said to laughter during the event Tuesday. "Parents, OK? Don't make them eat with a fork and knife. Just pick it up."
Whether the lunchtime meal qualified as finger food is debatable. More clear: It was as healthy as it was tasty. During the second annual Kids' State Dinner, Obama hosted 54 kids who had won her Healthy Lunchtime Challenge recipe contest. Junior chefs from throughout the country submitted recipes for meals that are both healthy and delicious; the contest, designed to promote healthy eating, is part of the First Lady's "Let's Move!" initiative.
On the menu Tuesday: Zucchini cornbread, spring rolls, mini pizzas with veggies, veggie barley salad, lettuce cups, a tropical fruit bowl and banana muffins, along with strawberry banana smoothies and passion fruit banana smoothies.
The winning recipes were chosen from more than 1,300 entries. Each recipe had to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutrition guidelines, and half the plate needed to be fruit- or veggie-based. Recipes were also judged on taste, creativity, originality and affordability.
During a surprise appearance, President Barack Obama took issue with his wife's dismissal of table manners. "Michelle never said to me I can just pick up something with my fingers at a state dinner. That's not fair!" he joked, before praising the kids' healthy habits. He recalled that when he was a kid, veggies would "get all soft and mushy, and nobody wanted to eat a pea or a Brussels sprout because they tasted horrible because they were all mush."
These days, he actually likes vegetables, he said – because they're prepared right. And that's something the participating kids know how to do. "You guys are going to set a good example for everybody all across the country," President Obama said. "And for parents, I want you guys to learn from the example of your children and keep working on these good recipes."
Many of the kids said they plan to continue spending time in the kitchen.
Samantha Mastrati, 12, of Rhode Island, who submitted a recipe for Italian Garden Salsa with Crunchy Chicken Tenders, has been cooking for about a year. "Healthy eating is important because everyone needs it," said Mastrati, who wore a pink dress, her light brown hair in curls. "It helps you live longer, you'll be happier, and you'll be healthier."
That attitude was echoed by Brynna Robert, 12, of Louisiana, who won with a recipe for sweet and spicy stir-fry. (The sweet: pineapple. The spicy: crushed garlic.) "If you don't eat healthy foods, it could cause all kinds of problems in your life," she said. "Since you only have one life, it's best to live it the best you can." Her memories of cooking trace back to when she was 4 years old, helping her mom make cakes. "I think it might be interesting for a future career," she said. "I enjoy cooking, and it's important to do something you love."
Robert and her peers certainly had the support of White House chef Sam Kass, who's also executive director of "Let's Move!" When he first tasted 10-year-old Olivia Neely's mini pizzas, he was impressed – if not convinced. Cauliflower crust? No way, he thought. That pizza was too good.
"He didn't believe there wasn't any wheat in it," Michelle Obama said. "The health guy was skeptical. So skeptical that he walked down to the kitchen and asked the chef whether they'd slipped in some wheat to make sure that the crust tasted right. But they told him, nope, no wheat; just the ingredients Olivia put in the recipe."
Call it the magic of a junior chef. As Kass mingled with the kids, he described cooking for the president as "the greatest honor a chef can have." "Work hard," he told one eager listener. "Work hard, and I expect to see you back here. Maybe if you're the chef, I'll get an invite to come see you here."
As Michelle Obama addressed the crowd, she stressed that they were "more than equipped" to become leaders – that they already were. "We've seen that when kids like all of you get involved in creating your own healthy meals, the results can be amazing and delicious and fun," she said. "You'll come up with ideas that none of us grownups ever thought of. You'll find new ways to get your families and friends to eat healthy and try new foods. So keep working hard, all right? You guys promise me that? I can't wait to see what you're going to do with your lives in the years to come."