I thought it would be easy to sit down at the computer and share the amazing experience I had last week, but I’m still at a loss for words. The story actually began a few months ago, when I encouraged my 10-year old daughter to enter the Epicurious “Healthy Lunchtime Challenge”. Her task was to create a lunch recipe that followed the USDA My Plate guidelines, essentially 25% lean protein 25% whole grains and 50% vegetables. The contest, created in concert with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, promoted a kids-in-the-kitchen approach to healthy eating. One lucky winner from each state (plus four territories) won the ultimate prize: a trip to the White House for the Kids’ State Dinner. My daughter proudly represented the state of Oregon at this event (with me in tow).
I’ve been involving my kids in cooking projects since they were three years old, and they are both very knowledgable about food. For the contest, my daughter wanted to make a dish using salmon since we have such fantastic salmon here in Oregon. We decided on fried rice, which is easy to cook, economical, and can be easily adapted depending on what you have in the fridge. It’s a simple recipe, but exactly the type of dish where you can slip in healthy bits that the kids will eat without a second thought. The recipe survived a few rounds of judging, and then only two weeks ago we found out we’d be heading to the White House.
I knew the Kids’ State Dinner would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both my daughter and me, but I truly had no idea what would be awaiting us at the White House. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that each of us was treated like visiting royalty. This was no dumbed-down version for kids, but an event truly modeled after an official State Dinner. Upon arrival, each winner was “announced” and entered through a hall lined with the press corps. Upstairs, we sipped spa-like infused water, and strolled through the historical parlors as the United States Marine Band entertained us with song. Next, we were introduced to the First Lady one-by-one and had a chance to chat as official photos were taken. Mrs. Obama was completely captivating–tall, gorgeous, welcoming, totally engaging. She stroked my daughter’s hair as she told her how proud she was of all her hard work. Audrey felt like the only person in the world at that moment.
During lunch, Tanya Steel from Epicurious and Mrs. Obama gave inspiring speeches about the importance of healthy cooking and eating and then–total surprise–in came the President. As if this wasn’t already the most surreal experience of my lifetime, we were now sitting a few feet away from the leader of the free world. President Obama spoke briefly with warmth and humor, and then took the time to walk around the room and chat with each and every one of us. He wasn’t rushed or hurried, but seemed genuinely thrilled to be at the Kids’ State Dinner. Wow.
The afternoon continued with words from chef/Let’s Move! director Sam Kass, songs from teen entertainer Rachel Crow, and a tour of the White House garden with Chefs Cris Comerford, Bill Yosses and several of their assistants. All-in-all we spent over four hours at the White House–a day for the Russell girl’s history book to be sure.
This day was a game changer for me. I’ve always been a proponent of healthy cooking, but I left the White House inspired, hopeful and ready to spread the word. How? I don’t know yet. But in the meantime, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get in the kitchen with your kids. Cook with them, teach them about fueling their bodies with healthy foods, enjoy the process. It makes a difference. ~LbR