It’s a scenario most of us only get a glimpse of on television or in the movies. On Monday, Aug. 20, Peachtree Middle School seventh-grader Haley Matthews and her mother, Tracy, were right in the middle of the festivities when they attended the first Kids’ State Dinner at the White House hosted by first lady Michelle Obama.
Haley, 12, earned her invitation to the dinner – actually a lunch – as Georgia’s winner in the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a nationwide recipe contest open to children between the ages of 8 and 12, sponsored by the food-centric website Epicurious.com and the United States Departments of Agriculture and Education in conjunction with Obama and her Let’s Move! campaign to curb childhood obesity. More than 1,200 entries were received from all 50 states and Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and the District of Columbia. Entries were judged on nutritional value, taste, creativity and originality, affordability and the story behind your recipe. The young chefs were encouraged to include the five food groups from ChooseMyPlate.gov. Haley’s winning recipe was a stuffed zucchini boat.
“The highlight for me was talking to the first lady and getting her autograph, and [seeing] the [White House] garden. We have a garden [at home],” said Haley.
When Epicurious.com conceived the idea of a children’s cooking contest, they approached Obama’s office about participating. “They were interested because it would help bring attention to kids and their parents the importance of healthy eating, and also get them into the kitchen together to start cooking up healthy foods,” said Tanya Steel, editor in chief of Epicurious.com.
The Matthews’ odyssey began when Tracy, who describes herself as a “huge foodie,” learned about the contest on Epicurious.com. “We rarely eat out. We create recipes on our own,” said Tracy, including her daughters, Haley and Regan, 11, who cook with her regularly. “Everything tastes better when you cook with love.”
“I like all the things my mom cooks,” Haley said.
Regan also submitted a recipe. “The girls understood there was only one winner per state,” Tracy said. “Regan was sad [her recipe wasn’t selected] but excited for her sister and very supportive.” Contest rules stipulated only the winner and one parent or guardian would be invited to the White House.
Epicurious.com staff taste tested all recipes to narrow down to a few semi-finalists per state. Winners were selected by White House Assistant Chef, Sam Kass; Chef Jose Andres; Epicurious.com staff; representatives from the departments of Agriculture and Education; and the mother and son authors of “Portion Size Me.”
“Our tasting panel was absolutely amazed at the variety of sophisticated, healthy recipes we received that included not only chicken breast, whole-wheat pasta and fresh fruit, but more surprising ingredients like quinoa and salmon,” said Steel. “What was especially wonderful were the heartfelt stories about why it was important to eat healthy. We are so thankful to Mrs. Obama for teaming up with Epicurious to help raise awareness for the importance of a healthy diet among kids.”
The day before the luncheon, the winners’ entourage toured the Julia Child exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, followed by a pizza party at the Georgetown hotel where they stayed. All the winners signed a cookbook of their recipes, which was presented to the first lady.
A bus transported the group to the White House. Tracy described a scene that made everyone feel important. Each child was introduced in a receiving line, with a harpist providing music. Media were on hand to interview some of the children. At a pre-lunch reception, Obama chatted with the guests, giving everyone a hug. President Obama made a surprise visit during lunch, saying he wasn’t much of a cook and asking the children not to drop any crumbs on the floor because first dog, Bo, is on a diet; he visited each table to shake everyone’s hand. Tables were decked out with fine china and linens and centerpieces were created from fresh fruits and vegetables. A cookbook of winning recipes was at each place. A balloon artist and Nickelodeon stars Big Time Rush provided entertainment. Haley and Tracy sat at the table next to Obama’s. When some children approached the first lady for her autograph, Haley jumped at the opportunity and was one of the few who were successful.
“Everyone was about making this a celebration for the kids,” Tracy said.
Haley and her mom worked on the stuffed zucchini boat recipe together (allowed by contest rules). “I really like zucchini. You can hollow it out and put other vegetables inside. I added red pepper because that’s also one of my favorites,” Haley said.
“I’ve been helping my mom cook since I was really little,” said Haley. “We like to make all kinds of different things. I like to chop up vegetables and fruit.”
There was a lot of buzz around Haley when she returned to school the day after the state dinner. “Everyone kept asking me about it,” she said. “My social studies teacher asked me to talk to the class about it a little.”
The White House experience made a lasting impression on Haley. As they left she told Tracy, “Mom, this is the best day of my life.”
To learn more about the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and see Haley’s recipe, visit recipechallenge.epicurious.com. Search for Epicurious on Facebook for photos of the Kids’ State Dinner.