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Hail to the chef

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By Shannon Watkins

Sophie Haga, 12, of Galax represented Virginia as the statewide winner of Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, which invited children to develop tasty, affordable and healthy lunches.

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Sophie, who will be starting seventh grade this fall at Galax Middle School, submitted a healthy lunch recipe for Chia Chicken Pitas that won her a seat representing the Commonwealth at the First Lady’s annual Kids’ State Dinner.

The trip included round-trip tickets from Delta airlines and a one-night stay in a Washington, D.C. hotel, along with a place at the dinner.

Susan Haga, Sophie’s mom, says she found out about the challenge in a family magazine.

“Mom gave me some bulgur, and she said to do whatever I wanted with it, so I put it in pita bread and added chicken and vegetables,” Sophie says of how she dreamed up her award-winning recipe.

“We make a tabbouleh at home,” explained Susan. “I use bulgur as the base, so I said, ‘You just go from there.’ And so she just took it and told me a list of stuff to get her at the grocery store.”

She tried it out on her family, who enjoyed the dish.

Sophie joined winners from the other 49 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. More than 1,500 recipes were submitted. A panel of judges included chef Sam Kass, executive director of the first lady’s campaign against childhood obesity, and Tanya Steel, a contributor to Epicurious food magazine, who created the contest and chose the winners.

Sophie and Susan traveled to Washington last week and joined the other winners for a healthy pizza party (all vegetarian) and a tour of Julia Child’s kitchen by the museum curator.

Sophie submitted the recipe in March. In June, after receiving notifications and filling out some paperwork, they found out that Sophie had won.

On July 18, the pair was transported to the White House. The White House band played cocktail music as the guests arrived. The featured guests were children, but the service was comparable to a state dinner for world leaders.

The children were interviewed by Kass, the president’s personal chef, then had their pictures made with the First Lady. Each child’s name was announced as he or she arrived, and butlers served samples of nine winning recipes on White House china. Each table was decorated with lavish centerpieces and each plate featured an elegant printed menu and place card.

During the dinner, they were seated at a table with the first lady’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen. Sophie noted that Al Roker was sitting at the table beside them.

The First Lady addressed the group and urged the children to be ambassadors for healthy eating in their homes, schools and communities.

“Don’t be shy, I want you to speak up,” she said. “Share with them what you’ve learned about healthy eating and cooking, about how to craft interesting things.”

Sophie met Michelle Obama personally. “She was really tall. And she said ‘Congratulations’ and gave everybody a hug. She’s really nice.”

Before the first lady ended her speech to the seated audience, the children met an unexpected guest. President Barack Obama joined the crowd, kissed his wife, high fived a few kids and spoke briefly.

“[Michelle] didn’t know, so she went to go eat and somebody ran up and told her that he was there,” said Sophie. “So she went back onstage and introduced him.”

“We have a lot of state dinners around here,” President Obama said. “They’re not always this cheerful and fun.”

He also confessed he doesn’t always eat healthy and admitted his weakness is chips and guacamole. The president praised Haga and the other recipe winners for taking the initiative and sharing with others the importance of eating healthy.

“It’s been one of the best days of my life,” said Sophie. “It’s an honor for me to represent Virginia at the White House.”

After the speeches and the meal, children were treated to a live performance by the cast of “The Lion King” and then took a tour of the White House kitchen garden.

The public can expect to see more of Sophie, as she has learned that each winner is being paired with a celebrity chef in their state to do public cooking demonstrations.

“This is the third year that they’ve had the contest and this is a new element that they’ve added this year,” said Susan.

Sophie and Susan aren’t sure exactly what part of Virginia the chef will be from, but the demonstration will take place in the fall, either at school or at the chef’s restaurant.

The celebration isn’t quite over for them, either. “We’re having a party for a big group of people to come over and try her recipe,” said Susan proudly.

For more information on the challenge and its winners, visit letsmove.gov/kids-state-dinner-winners

Sophie’s Winning Recipe

CHIA CHICKEN PITAS

From Sophie Haga’s entry at LetsMove.gov: “I wanted a food that would last from lunchtime until after a gymnastics practice or a swim team practice,” says Sophie. “I like to experiment with my mom in the kitchen, so I started experimenting with ingredients to come up with something I could eat for lunch to keep me energized all afternoon. I added chia seeds because my mom likes to sprinkle them on our meals. She says they add some protein. I like to have a fruit salad on the side. I think they’re yummy!”

Ingredients:

1 cup bulgur

Pinch of salt

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked and diced

1 cup fresh or frozen corn

1 cup fresh or frozen cooked peas

1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Fresh pepper

1 tablespoon chia seeds

½ cup cilantro, chopped

1 cup cucumbers, peeled and chopped

½ cup feta cheese

4 whole-wheat pitas

Preparation:

In a large microwavable bowl, combine 1 cup water, bulgur, and salt. Cover with plastic wrap and put a fork through the wrap to vent the steam. Microwave for 3 minutes on high power, then remove from the microwave.

Add the chicken, corn, peas, and carrots, cover back up, and let sit for 10 minutes. Add olive oil, lemon juice, pepper, chia seeds, cilantro, cucumbers, and cheese. Slice pitas in half. Stuff pita shell with mixture until full.

428 calories; 10g fat; 43g carbohydrates; 29g protein