By Talia Mindich - 07/09/13 10:45 PM EDT
First lady Michelle Obama hosted more than 50 children at the White House on Tuesday for a Kids’ State Dinner, which included a surprise visit from President Obama.
All the children at the event participated in the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, submitting a recipe for a meal that is “healthy, affordable, original and delicious.”
“When kids, like all of you, get involved in creating your own healthy meals, the results can really be amazing and delicious and fun,” she said. “You come up with ideas that none of us grownups could have thought of.”
This was the second time the White House held a Kids’ State Dinner, which is actually a lunch. It took place in the State Dining Room — the same room that is the site of many actual state dinners.
As the kids struggled to eat the appetizers — zucchini cornbread and spring rolls — with their silverware, the first lady told them they could eat with their fingers.
The president joked he was never allowed to do that.
“Michelle never said to me I could just pick up something with my fingers at a state dinner. That’s not fair,” he said.
The president said he wasn’t much of a cook but told two student journalists at the event that his favorite food is broccoli.
He visited every table but did not stay to eat.
The first lady did join the children for the meal, which featured mini pizzas with veggies, veggie barley salad, “lucky lettuce cups,” a “taste of the tropics” fruit bowl, “bodacious banana muffins,” a strawberry-banana smoothie and a passion-fruit-banana smoothie.
The event was set up like an actual state dinner. The children and their parents streamed past a clutch of media on their way inside with the kids’ names, states and award-winning recipes announced.
“We set this event up, and we mirrored it exactly to what people experience when we host world leaders,” the first lady told the kids.
“We were in this very room — that receiving line you had to sit through, stand through — we do that.”
The winners, ages 8-12, came in quietly with their guardians. The boys wore button-down shirts with some favoring suit jackets or bowties. Many of the girls wore sundresses.
Brynna Robert, 12, from Metairie, La., won for her “Sweet and Spicy Stir Fry.” She said it was originally her mom’s recipe, but it was “really bland” so she added spices and different vegetables.
Her mother, Sheila Robert, added that she and Brynna made the recipe together on Mother’s Day.
“I’m just looking forward to every last minute of it,” Brynna Robert said of the event.
The centerpiece of each table featured an arrangement of flowers, peppers, Brussels sprouts and radishes. Each guest received a blue or yellow mason jar filled one of the winning smoothies.
There were 54 children in attendance — one from each of the 50 states plus the U.S. territories and D.C.
After having lunch with the first lady, the kids visited the White House garden.
Their recipe entries had to use USDA’s My Plate guidelines and include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy foods — with fruits and veggies making up roughly half the plate or recipe.
Winners were chosen last month by a panel of judges. More than 1,300 recipes were submitted and narrowed down to two from each state and territory. The judges sampled 108 dishes in making their decisions.
The full list of winners and recipes can be found online at recipechallenge.epicurious.com.
“The most important thing is the healthiness of the dish,” said Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move! and senior policy advisor on nutrition, in a video of the judging.
“We’re also judging taste. It has to be delicious if kids are going to eat it.”
The contest grew out of Obama’s Let’s Move! anti-obesity initiative.
In addition to the Kids’ State Dinner, she also hosts school children at the White House several times a year to help plant and then harvest the White House Kitchen Garden.
Michelle Obama has been a longtime advocate for healthier food in schools. She helped push for the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act although she never made an appearance on Capitol Hill to testify or lobbying for the legislation.
And, late last month, when the Agriculture Department announced its new “smart snacks in school” standards, Obama praised the decision — a noteworthy move as the first lady rarely issues statements on policies.
“Many parents are working hard every day to make sure they provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks to their kids. Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over the snacks our kids have access to when they’re away from home. That’s why, as a mom myself, I am so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students and reinforcing the work we do at home to help our kids stay healthy,” she said.
Emily Goodin contributed