Kids attend lunchtime "State Dinner" at the White House
WASHINGTON, D.c. (CNN) -- The White House often extends dinner invitations to its friends across the globe. From Downing Street to Hollywood Boulevard, the executive branch rolls out it's own version of the red carpet hosting State Dinners for queens and kings, prime ministers and other heads of state.
But this time, the invitations were not intended for the likes of Queen Elizabeth or George Clooney and the attendees who arrived at the White House on Monday were not commanders of countries or glitterati. In fact many of them stood less than five feet tall, girls in breezy summer dresses, hair adorned with bows or flowers and boys clothed in crisp white shirts, ties knotted tightly at their necks. As they walked across the tiled floor, pausing to give interviews to the press, many of them were surprisingly confident despite their short stature and lack of political sway.
The 54 attendees, many of them accompanied by their parents, were taking part in the first-ever "Kid's State Dinner" at the White House. The lucky children were winners of "The Healthy Lunchtime Challenge," a nationwide recipe contest, open to 8-12 years olds, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama and her Let's Move! campaign.
The event sponsors -- that also included the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture and Epicuricous.com -- received more than 1,200 entries from children around the country, and even one recipe from India, despite the contest only being open to U.S. states and territories. The chefs, ages 8 to12, were instructed to create dishes that were tasty, healthy, affordable and unique, in addition to meeting nutritional guidelines set forth by the USDA's ChooseMyPlate.gov. The winning recipes have been published in a cookbook.
Before the lunch service began, Mrs. Obama spoke to the winners and their families, encouraging them to look around the room and see what they had inspired.
"Look at all this," Obama said, pointing to the crowd gathering in the back of the banquet room. "Reporters from everywhere. They're just everywhere! They never show up like this for stuff that we do. This is the hottest ticket at the White House right here, because of all of you."
Mrs. Obama also discussed how impressed she was with the creativity of the recipes, from a "Kickin' Chicken Salad" and a "Power Pesto Pasta," to "Miss Kitty's Egg Salad Sensation."
"And then there was Aaron Beckman from Nebraska who came up with the 'Apple Alien,' a dish that involves fruit meteors and veggie asteroids," said Obama. "It's meteors and aliens and stuff. Very scary. But healthy!" she added teasingly.
President Obama also dropped by the "State Dinner," surprising the young chefs and their parents.
"I heard that there was a State Dinner going on here, and usually I get invited to the State Dinners," he said to a laughing audience. "So this time, I just had to crash."
The president told the group of children how proud he was of their ability to create such tasty, healthy dishes.
"I'm not a great cook," he admitted. "I'm an okay cook. I can make a good omelet, toast, I make a very good chili. But let's face it, I don't cook that often these days. But I remember cookin' and it's not always easy to make something that people like to eat. Then for you guys to actually come up with recipes that are healthy and tasty, and to do it in a way that helps to contribute to spreading healthy eating among your peers, that's a really big deal."
He closed his statements with complimenting the kids on their sharp attire and requested that the group try not to drop any scraps on the floor.
"Bo's on a diet right now and he'll eat anything that he sees," said the president, before walking around and shaking hands with the crowd.
One of the contest winners was 8-year-old Finwe Wiedenhoeft from Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Several months ago, Finwe's mother Kristina noticed a post on Epicurious's website and immediately started brainstorming different recipe ideas with her daughter. They ultimately settled on a "Barbeque Cheddar Chickpea Burger." It was an odd choice for a family who loves meat, but like every great family recipe, there's a story behind its inception.
Back in the fall of 2011, the Wiedenhoeft's oldest son entered the Navy and according to Finwe, the family wanted to be supportive of his difficult journey ahead but weren't sure how to do it.
"He was in boot camp and was going something hard, so we decided to do something hard," Finwe told CNN in a phone interview. But rather than pump iron or do daily push-ups, they decided they wanted to try going vegan. For the length of the son's stay in boot camp, the family tried to eat only healthy, non-animal bi-product meals.
"We ate a lot of beans and made a lot of bean burgers," said Mrs. Wiedenhoeft.
According to Kristina, Finwe has loved working in the kitchen from a young age. She remembers asking her daughter when she was 3-years-old what she wanted to be when she grew up; her first response was that she wanted to be "a cooker in a restaurant."
Years later, Finwe still works side by side with her mother, brown shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, while she mixes the burger ingredients with her bare hands. As she's only four feet six inches tall, she prefers to sit on the counter-top while she's cooking, and doesn't mind getting messy.
Her mom explained that since Finwe won the contest, she's always thinking about what different types of food she can put together.
"It's given her an interest in creating her own healthy recipes," said her mother.
And according to Epicurious CEO Tanya Steel, that's the whole point.
"It's really captured the hearts and minds and stomachs of kids and their parents," Steel told CNN.
"I was worried we were going to get a myriad of peanut butter and jelly variations or that kind of thing," Steel admitted. "But what we ended up getting was a really sophisticated array of recipes that really were on target in terms of the 'Choose My Plate' guidelines. They were creative, they were original, they had funny names, they were very healthy, and it was very interesting to see the ingredients that the kids and their parents used together."
The mother of two 14-year-old boys, Steel also emphasized that the contest was more than just a recipe and some ingredients.
"Definitely the overarching issue here is that a fifth of our kids are obese and a third are obese or overweight, so that's a gigantic national health problem," Steel told CNN. "And the horrifying statistic that this is the first generation that will not outlive their parents if the trend continues."