AUBURNDALE — Not every 10-year-old has the chance to rub elbows with the first lady at the White House. Yonah Kalikow did.
She earned her invitation to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the Massachusetts winner of the Healthy Lunchtime Contest, run by the White House in collaboration with Epicurious.com. The soon-to-be sixth grader’s recipe for quinoa lentil burgers with kale salad was selected from a pool of over 1,500 entrants.
The contest, now in its third year, called for children between 8 and 12 (along with a parent or guardian) to submit an original recipe using USDA nutrition guidelines from ChooseMyPlate.gov, encouraging entrants to fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables. One winner was selected from each state, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. All were invited to attend a kids’ “state dinner” July 18 hosted by Michelle Obama.
“I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” says Yonah, of the moment she entered the White House. “I didn’t think the day would actually ever come.”
Her first foray into the kitchen was at age 8, when she began baking with her older sister, Shanie, now 14. Yonah eventually gravitated more toward cooking, and now often helps her parents make family dinners. Her winning recipe was the result of “cleaning up from Passover,” says dad David de Graaf, combined with getting creative in the kitchen. With a well-tended backyard garden to supply most of the produce, and a diet mom Rachel Kalikow classifies as “mostly vegetarian or pescatarian,” Yonah didn’t have trouble coming up with a creative, healthy dish. “I just threw in whatever I wanted and it tasted good,” Yonah explains in the family kitchen as she demonstrates her burger recipe. Her father adds, “we figured we would do every hit food that people talk about, so we’ve got quinoa in there, and kale.”
Despite her young age, the poised Auburndale resident already has a fairly sophisticated palate. She likes Thai and Vietnamese food, and her favorite thing to eat is surprising: “I really like zucchini flowers.”
The secret ingredient in her burgers is ground dry-roasted wasabi peas, and when describing the composition of her kale salad she explains, “I like cranberries with kale because kale is very bitter.” It is undoubtedly this beyond-her-years culinary savvy and an attention to flavors and textures that helped give her dish the edge against the competition.
The dish, writes contest creator Tanya Steel, special projects editor at Epicurious.com, in an e-mail, is “filling, easy to make, and something families can make together,” made with “ingredients that are inherently healthy and affordable.”
Steel was also on the judging panel, which included representatives of US departments of education and agriculture, Delta Airlines consulting chef Linton Hopkins, President Obama’s nutrition advisor Sam Kass, and two kid judges. They announced the winners at the end of June, allowing Yonah to share the exciting news with her classmates at Franklin Elementary School right before summer vacation.
Yonah and her dad were flown to Washington, D.C., and put up in a hotel to attend the kids’ state dinner, and the day was a whirlwind: photos with the first lady, a tour the White House gardens, and a dinner menu with many of the winning recipes, though not Yonah’s.
Her favorite parts were the expansive vegetable gardens, and hearing last year’s winner Braeden Quinn, from Bear, Del., talk about a nonprofit called 3B he started in his hometown to bring healthy food to everyone.
His story inspired her. “I am trying to think about how I am going to pay it forward,” she says.Bethany Graber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.