WASHINGTON — The White House band played gentle cocktail music as the guests arrived. The East Room’s crystal chandeliers glittered over the neat table settings surrounded by the room’s signature gold curtains.
The White House kitchen staff appeared poised to serve diplomats. The menu included a muffin tin egg white frittata and a quinoa sweet potato boat.
But the meal was not for politicians. The featured guests were kids.
“It’s been the best day of my life,” said Hannah Foley of Grove City, Pa. “We got pictures with Michelle Obama, which was totally awesome.”
Hannah and 53 other children _ one from each state, territory and district _ attended a “state dinner” at the White House hosted by first lady Michelle Obama to promote healthy eating. They were winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a national recipe contest that is part of the “Let’s Move!” campaign to battle childhood obesity.
Each child submitted a healthy recipe for the challenge and was selected by a committee to eat with the first lady. Hannah, 10, made seafood tacos with lime coleslaw and peachy salsa.
Before Obama ended her openings remarks to the seated audience, the children met an unexpected arrival.
“We have a lot of state dinners around here,” President Barack Obama said, to the delight and surprise of many children. “They’re not always this cheerful and fun.”
The White House chefs prepared some of the children’s recipes, including a black bean burger and tomato cucumber salad. The kids, accompanied by their parents or guardians, were excited to meet Sam Kass, the president’s personal chef.
“I want to be a chef here at the White House,” said 8-year-old Ariel Derby of Fort Worth, Texas, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.
The “dinner” actually began about noon. The president admitted that the timing was unusual but that the traditional term of “state dinner” would continue.
Michelle Obama, an ardent advocate of healthy eating, discussed its importance and how the children’s recipes impressed her. She also used her podium time to criticize congressional Republicans.
In May, the House Appropriations Committee approved a plan to let school districts disregard White House mandates established in 2012 to make schools provide healthier meals. The districts have to show that providing meals that meet the White House guidelines, which required reduced salt and sugar, would cause the schools to lose money over a six-month period.
“In recent months, I know we’ve even seen grownups, including folks in Congress, try to undo some of the progress that we’ve made to get healthy food into our schools,” said Obama. “Those few complaining voices happen to be the loudest voices.”
But the political commentary ended quickly, and the kids did not seem to notice it, anyway. They were more interested in downing their “tropical strawberry banana secret smoothie.”
President Obama admitted that his family falls victim to sweets, too. His own culinary Achilles heel is chips and guacamole.
“It’s not like our family, including me, don’t have some snacks once in awhile that may not be on the perfect nutrition triangle,” the president said. “If there’s a bowl of good chips and guacamole, I lose my mind.”
Nicolas Come of Sacramento, Calif., attended the state dinner as one of a handful of child reporters on the scene. Dressed in a jacket, shirt and fedora, Nicolas, 9, had designed an app, Nicolas’ Garden, where the children’s recipes will be published after the event.
What was it like to see the president up close?
“Amazing,” Nicolas said. “There’s nothing else that can describe it.”