Timothy Burke describes his trick for making spring rolls with rice paper, which is notoriously difficult. With a bit of translation from his mom, the shy eight year old said, You dip them in a wide plate of hot water, and turn them, then take them out of the water and place them on another plate before they get soft. Then you add the vegetables and roll it up fast. Easy.
Tim’s winning recipe, Vegetable Confetti Spring Rolls, won him the spot in the fourth annual Kids Healthy Lunchtime Challenge Cookbook, a project of the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move project.
Tim’s favorite part of the spring rolls is the hoisin sauce. “Not too long ago, I found out that there are hot red peppers in the sauce, and that’s what makes its spicy,” he said, letting out a hoot when he says the word spicy. Another fun fact? Tim is the second child from Murch Elementary School in Washington, D.C. to win a trip to the White House after winning the contest.
For the Challenge, Let’s Move and their partners invited kids ages eight to 12 to create an original recipe that is healthy, affordable, and delicious. Winners from each state have been invited to attend a lunch at the White House on July 10th.
“Reading over these winning recipes, two things become very clear,” the First Lady said in a press release. “America’s kids are passionate about not just eating healthy food, but about cooking healthy food, too. And we’re raising some truly inventive and talented chefs.”
Indeed, the contest puts to rest the idea that every American kid is eating chicken fingers. The 55 winning recipes feature ingredients like avocado pistachio pesto, grilled eggplant, spinach, tzatziki, and farro. “The amount of quinoa in the recipes is staggering,” said Tanya Steel, author of two cookbooks, and the initial mastermind behind the contest. “It just shows you how very sophisticated these kids are now.”
The idea for the contest first came to Steel while she was the editor in chief at Epicurious.com. She pitched the concept and worked with several partners including the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to hold the first contest in 2012. Since then, between 1,000 to 1,500 kids have entered every year.
Nine-year-old Shreya Patel from Schaumberg, Illinois found out about the contest when her cousin entered last year. She won for her Garam Masala Quinoa Burger with Raita recipe. Her school principal announced her win at their monthly assembly.
“We added a lot of spice,” Shreya said. “But not too much so people were breathing up and down.”
Steel winnows down the entries with the help of a few folks from the USDA. She says they look for recipes that are original, creative, affordable, have an interesting backstory, and are clearly written by kids, not copied from the Internet. And no wraps are allowed.
Dishes from the finalists–two per state–are then prepared by partner organization, DC Central Kitchen, a meal distribution, job training and food recycling hub that feeds thousands of people every day. Judging happens in a lighting quick three-hour time span. This year’s panel included Debra Eschmeyer, executive director of Let’s Move; Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave; Jackie Haven, deputy director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion; three previous winners of the challenge, plus two Cooking Matters kid graduates; and Steel herself.
“It was a real gauntlet,” Michel Nischan said of tasting 110 plates of food. Alongside the dishes, each child shared a personal story about what drew them to cooking. “Their personal story was really important, and so touching,” he added, mentioning how one child wrote about sharing meals with an elderly grandparent.
Aria Pelaez, the winner for California, fell in love with food on a trip to rural France, where she harvested vegetables for her family’s meals. This was her second year entering, and when she heard she had won, she said, “It was really exciting. I almost jumped out of my seat.”
Aria’s winning recipe, California Rainbow Taco with Mic-Kale Obama Slaw and Barack-amole, took a lot of trouble shooting with her mom. “We spent a year working on recipes that we had to throw away,” Aria said. She likes flavor and admits that her mom’s cooking is sometimes “too healthy.”
Before the recipes get added to the cookbook, Steel and a few of her former colleagues test them for ease of use and clarity. Then everyone flies to Washington, D.C. Tim won’t fly, since he’s local, but he’ll be picked up in a car, which “is pretty exciting too.”
The kids arrive the day before the lunch for a private tour of the Smithsonian, a cooking demo from Nischan and a pizza party at the Westin. Then, at the White House, they get to try each other’s recipes.
Shreya is looking forward to trying the Indian Tacos from Dillon Andrews of Laramie, Wyoming, and the Black Bean Burger with Kale Chips and Freeze Out Smoothie from Jasmine Dulan of Leawood, Kansas.
The next day, after lunch, they’ll get their photos taken with the First Lady. Steel says this is the part of the day when everyone cries, including herself. The first year, it cemented her choice to work on the event the following year. Steel is hopeful that the initiative will continue into the next administration and become a White House tradition, “like the pardoning of the turkeys or the Easter Egg Roll,” she says.
In past years the winning kids have gone on to do incredible things, from founding their own hunger relief nonprofits like Brae’s Brown Bags and Abby’s Apples, to starting wellness foundations like HAPPY, and clothing donation programs. Then, last fall, Logan Guleff, a 2014 Healthy Challenge winner, won Season 2 of Master Chef Junior.
But in the end, this contest is about getting more kids into the kitchen, and engaging them in their own healthy meals. “That’s the fun part,” said Timothy. “Making my own choices.”
See the full list of the 2015 winners here.
Photos, from top: Shreya Patel with her Garam Masala Quinoa Burger with Raita; Timothy Burke with his Vegetable Confetti Spring Rolls; Aria Pelaez with her California Rainbow Taco with Mic-Kale Obama Slaw and Barack-amole.