Young Indian American chefs attend fifth annual kids’ state dinner hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama

Indian American whiz kids are among winners of 2016 White House recipe contest

WASHINGTON, DC: It is one of the most exciting and endearing events at the White House: the Kids’ ‘State Dinner’ hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama recognizing winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a nationwide recipe contest for children to promote cooking and healthy eating.

This year was special for the Diaspora: children of Indian origin headed to the White House, Thursday, in recognition of their winning recipes in the 2016 contest. Among the winners were: Shakthi Ramachandran, 8, of Indiana, for her delectable chicken tikka pita with cucumber raita; Priya Patel, 10, of Texas, for cooking a healthy and delicious Tex-Mex veg-head lasagna; and Abhijith Jenkins, 11, of Missouri, for his tropical vacation with catfish and quinoa delicacy.

The First Lady warmly welcomed all 56 winners of the 2016 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge — aspiring young chefs who got to share a nutritious meal with her. “You guys blew us away with your creativity and your skills in the kitchen”, she told the kids. The White House recipe contest is part of her ‘Let’s Move’ initiative to keep kids healthy.

Since 2012, under this initiative, the First Lady has hosted five Kids’ State Dinners and welcomed more than 270 young people and their families to the White House, and over 6,000 recipe submissions have been reviewed. “And, of course, we ate a whole lot of good food”, she said, to cheers from the 2016 gathering. “That’s a good thing”.

Shakthi-Ramachandran
Shakthi Ramachandran, 8, of Indiana. Recipe: Chicken Tikka Pita with Cucumber Raita

The First Lady emphasized that the purpose of the event and initiative is to ensure that kids embrace healthy options over a lifetime, that they are in it for the long haul! “This is about setting kids like all of you up for a lifetime of healthy choices”, she underscored, and proceeded to make a strong case for eating healthy foods.

“The food that you put into your bodies can actually help you get better grades. And it can also affect your performance in sports and other activities too”, she told the school kids.

“When you give your body the best possible fuel, you have more energy, you’re stronger, you think more quickly. You just feel better in general all throughout the day, every day”, she said.

The First Lady gave the kids a lot of credit, congratulating them for winning the White House recipe contest.

Lauding that they “all are so passionate about eating healthy”, she noted it is “because you know the difference that it can make in your lives. And with that passion – and with your winning recipes – you all are now part of a proud Kids’ State Dinner tradition. You are part of a network of extraordinary young people who are leading a movement for healthy eating all across the country”, she said.

Now in it’s fifth year, the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge received over 1,200 entries featuring wholesome, nutritious and tasty ingredients. Kids, ages 8 to 12 years, from across the country were invited to create a healthy, affordable, original and delicious lunch recipe. One winner from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five US territories, was chosen and flown to Washington with a parent or guardian for the Kids’ State Dinner.

Priya Patel, 10, of Texas. Recipe: Tex-Mex Veg-Head Lasagna
Priya Patel, 10, of Texas. Recipe: Tex-Mex Veg-Head Lasagna

About her dish, Shakthi said, “My dad is from India and I like Indian food, especially chicken tikka masala”. She also likes to eat a lot of vegetables. “This recipe combines all these things and is very tasty and delicious. In the summer, most of the vegetables we eat are from our garden. The cucumber raita dressing makes it delicious”, said one of the youngest chefs.

Regarding her vegetable lasagna, Priya revealed, “I was first inspired to make this recipe by my Mom. She always tells us to add vegetables to everything we make and to experiment”.

Priya said, “You can substitute any veggies and fruits you like. The possibilities are endless. My Mom says not having or liking one ingredient is not an excuse to not try a recipe or to buy fast food”.

Maya
Maya Jacob, 10, of Oklahoma. Recipe: Okie Pride Brown Rice with Chicken and Vegetables

At the State Dinner, the First Lady implored kids to continue inculcating healthy habits and to help others, thereby changing lives for the better.

“I know you guys can do this”, she told the kids. “I see this every year. I see the work of kids, the magic you all do. People change because of kids. They change how they eat. They change the way they think. They change the way they see one another. You guys are so powerful and you don’t even know it”.

The First Lady’s powerful words lingered.

We met an amazing little girl, Maya Jacob, 10. Maya’s parents hail from the small Christian community in Pakistan; she is born and being raised here in Oklahoma. Her winning recipe, Okie Pride Brown Rice with Chicken and Vegetables, is named after her home state.

First Lady Michelle Obama addressing the 56 winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge at the 2016 Kids' State Dinner held in the East Room of the White House
First Lady Michelle Obama addressing the 56 winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge at the 2016 Kids’ State Dinner held in the East Room of the White House

“My inspiration to cook healthy are my precious 14-year-old twin brothers who have cerebral palsy and also a severe seizure disorder”, Maya disclosed. “We found out that certain foods or even too many carbs or sugar can trigger seizures”. She thought, “If we can help reduce their seizures just by what they eat, then I will definitely help prepare recipes for them. I had no idea that food played that big a part in our health. Ever since we decided to start eating healthy, we noticed a huge decrease in their seizures and a bonus is I can focus much better at school”, she said.

Maya is a soft-spoken girl with the sweetest smile, and she is a pro at interacting with the press corps. While many kids seemed exhausted after the day trip to Washington and an eventful day at the White House, Maya was raring to go. She deftly answered queries from journalists, even exchanging high fives. And it was endearing to watch kid reporters interview her, definitely a star of the press interaction!

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that kids can’t make a difference”, the First Lady told winners at the White House event. “You all have really made the difference on this issue. You guys are the leaders! In fact, when it comes to building a healthier country, we’re counting on all of you guys to lead the way. And that may sound like a big ask of you, but you guys can do this. So many of you have already stepped up in your families, in your schools, in your communities’.

It is interesting to note that Skylar McGough, 8, of Nevada, was among the winners for her veggie-packed Indian lentils. “Our family recently became vegan”, Skylar disclosed. “For this recipe, we received my favorite store-bought boxed Indian lentils, and made it full of veggies. Vegan food can be healthy and full of flavor. I love this recipe served with brown rice and a Mango Lassi”, she said.

The kids were treated to a special performance by Walt Disney World Resort’s ‘The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic’ which is inspired by India, its rich traditions and culture. They were also afforded an opportunity to meet and learn from television chef Rachael Ray whose Yum-O! organization has partnered with the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. The White House has it all covered when it comes to hosting and entertaining young ones!

The Healthy Lunchtime Challenge was sponsored by PBS flagship station WGBH Boston, the US Department of Education and the US Department of Agriculture.

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