Our Fifth Year Anniversary Interview with First Lady Michelle Obama

February 18, 2015

We’re so thrilled to have the First Lady on the cover of our spring issue. If there’s anyone who cares as much as we do about kids and health, it’s Mrs. Obama. Plus, we’re celebrating not only our shared commitment to kids, but also a shared anniversary: Five years of the White House’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity and five years of our magazine. 

Nine-year-old Will Sprague (Watertown, MA) and thirteen-year-old Olivia Harvey (Wayland, MA) were lucky enough to interview Mrs. Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, where she talked to them about food, cooking, and the First Family's eating habits. Here’s the whole interview!

Will: Why did you start Let’s Move!?

Mrs. Obama: I started Let’s Move! because I noticed that, in my household, before we came to the White House, it was hard to make sure that my kids were getting balanced, healthy meals because we were busy all the time. Sometimes we’d do too much takeout, sometimes we were not getting many fruits and vegetables. And I thought, if my family was struggling to eat healthy, balanced, fun, delicious foods, I bet there are a lot of other families who are struggling with this, too. 

We also know that childhood obesity is a huge problem in this country, and it’s why kids and families have to learn how to eat healthy, and make healthy eating fun. We thought that Let’s Move! would be a good way to combat the problem of childhood obesity, and also help the country think differently about food, and to understand that what we put into our bodies is just as important as anything we’re doing.

Will: What are you most excited about for the Let’s Move! birthday?

Mrs. Obama: I’m excited that we’re going to be able to highlight a lot of the wonderful successes that we’ve had. One of the things we want to point out is, look how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. Over the last five years, we’ve seen school lunches improve because of the Healthy Hunger-Free Schools initiative. We’re seeing more kids getting involved and active in school. More schools are finding ways to incorporate physical fitness into their day.

There has been an overall cultural shift—more people are planting gardens, more people are learning to love vegetables. We’re hoping to encourage families to find ways to cook again and spend time cooking meals and eating dinners together. Over the past five years, we’ve seen all these wonderful changes, and we want to celebrate that and encourage people to do even more in the future.

Will: What was the first thing you remember cooking by yourself?

Mrs. Obama: When I was a kid, your age, it was easy stuff like peanut butter and jelly, so I learned how to make my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

Will: Yeah. 

Mrs. Obama: I used to make hot dogs. 

Will: Oh, really? 

Mrs. Obama: Yeah, when I was little. You just took a pan, you boiled hot dogs.  And that was something I could do on my own. Basic stuff—sandwiches and snack food and things like that. For New Year’s Eve, my family would make fun appetizers.  My mom taught me how to make little cheese puffs; cream cheese and garlic powder and a bunch of other stuff, and then we’d spread it on a Ritz cracker and bake it.

Olivia:  Have you ever messed up a recipe?

Mrs. Obama: Oh, gosh, yes. There are too many ways to mess up recipes. Because the truth is that I didn’t really have to cook for myself until I was a grown up.  I mean, when I was in high school and college -- college kids don’t cook.  So when I got married and started having kids of my own, that’s when I really started cooking because I had to feed my family.

There were a lot of hits and misses with cooking. I’m trying to think—one of the first dishes I made for my then-boyfriend, now- husband, was seafood gumbo.  I didn’t mess it up, but it was a pretty ambitious dish to cook for the first time. Gumbo is one of those things you’ve got to experiment with.

Things like fried chicken are easy to mess up because if you don’t know to keep the grease just right, it gets kind of soggy and not  crunchy. And I’ve had my share of undercooked chicken. Many first-timers mess up on cooking chicken.

Will: What was your favorite thing to eat as a kid?

Mrs. Obama: Macaroni and cheese. I still love it. I love macaroni and cheese.

Will: Everybody does.

Mrs. Obama: You know what, the President doesn’t like macaroni and cheese, and we all think he’s crazy. But, yes, my mom made the best macaroni and cheese.  I could eat macaroni and cheese every day, but now I don’t eat it that much. 

Olivia: Is there anything you didn’t like to eat when you were a kid that you like to eat now?

Mrs. Obama: I was a picky eater when I was little.  One thing that I really didn’t like was breakfast foods, if you can imagine, and it would drive my mother crazy.  I didn’t like eggs, bacon -- I didn’t even like pancakes and waffles.

So you know what I ate for breakfast every day until I went to college?  Peanut butter and jelly.  And my brother, who ate anything -- he ate like a horse -- we would go to visit our family down south, and they were famous for cooking big breakfasts, steak and eggs, grits, homemade biscuits, fresh fish and okra.  It was a big feast.  And I was still sitting at the table with my little peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  

I didn’t like Brussels sprouts and now roasted Brussels sprouts are one of my favorite vegetables. But your taste buds develop when you get older, and some of the things you couldn’t stand, you really love later. That’s why we encourage kids to try all foods, because you never know. You have to try something 10, 12, even 20 times before your taste buds adjust. Whenever there were Brussels sprouts at dinner my brother and I used to try to slip them into our napkins and leave them on the floor - - like our mom wouldn’t see a pile of food on the floor. [Laughter.] But we always had issues with Brussels sprouts and lima beans, and now I love Brussels sprouts and any time they’re in season, they’re one of my favorite vegetables.

Olivia: I see you doing jumping jacks, hula hooping, dancing. What is your favorite thing to eat before and after exercising?

Mrs. Obama: Well, I try not to eat too much before an activity. I try to eat something like a protein that gives me some energy, whether it’s a protein shake or veggie juice—something that will give me a little bit of fuel to work on. Because one of the worst things to try to do is an activity when you’re hungry, because it’s like a car trying to run with no gas. It’s just not going to go very far. So you have to have just enough to keep you going, and then when you finish a really good workout or playing, a lot of the experts recommend that you have more protein, whether it’s turkey or another protein shake or nuts. I try to drink a lot of water before, during and after I do anything fun. So water is key.

Will: How do you get your daughters to try new foods?

Mrs. Obama: I force them. [Laughter.] I’m just kidding. Well, I’m sort of kind of kidding. But we encourage our kids to eat what’s served.  So one of the things we never did in our household was have somebody say, I don’t want that, make me something else.  Whatever I made for dinner, that’s what everybody ate.  And my motto -- our motto at our dinner table with our kids was, you finish what’s on your plate and if you’re not hungry, then you finish your vegetables. You can’t come back later on and say that you’re hungry.  Because a lot of you kids, you try that.  You don’t eat dinner, and then you say, I’m not hungry.  It’s fine if you’re not hungry but then you can’t come back and have snacks and chips and nuts and popcorn and all that, because you were in fact hungry. 

The dinner table is where we experiment, our kids just get used to all different types of vegetables, because that’s how we eat in our house. If you’re not allergic to something, then the expectation is that you try it. And my kids actually have grown to understand how different their bodies feel when they’re eating right. When they go away and don’t have access to great breakfasts,  they come home and say, you know, I didn’t feel great. So over the years they’ve learned, and their bodies actually respond to better foods. My recommendation to kids is: Keep trying different things, and don’t be too whiny about food because you need food to live—and you need good food to live. You can’t live on soda and snacks. You just can’t. You’ve got to eat some vegetables. 

Olivia: What do you most remember your mom or dad cooking?

Mrs. Obama: Oh, gosh.  My mom’s macaroni and cheese, obviously.  Macaroni and cheese was one of those special things.  So when I found out she was cooking macaroni and cheese, I was so happy.  It was the best day.  You know when you have a good dinner?  There’s nothing better than having your favorite dinner, and you look forward to it, and macaroni and cheese was that for me.

My mom made a lot of great food: lasagna and a great lemon chicken that was a Sunday favorite.  My dad didn’t cook that often, but he made peppered steak, and that was one of our favorites. So whenever he got in the kitchen, that’s what he cooked, and it was pretty special.

Will: What is your family’s favorite meal?

Mrs. Obama: I think as a unit, we all pretty much love sushi, sashimi, tempura, vegetable tempuras -- things like that.  That’s something that all four of us agree on.  The girls love sushi, and the President and I -- the President grew up in Hawaii, so he grew up eating sashimi and lots of fresh fish.  So anything that’s fresh like that he loves, loves, loves.

Olivia: Do you think teaching kids to cook is important?

Mrs. Obama: Absolutely. If you teach kids how to cook, it’s going to be more fun for them because anything kids can engage in on their own, where they have control and they’re learning something new, they’re going to be more interested in how things are made and they’re going to try it—they’re going to be more inclined to give it a try because they had a hand in making it.

And cooking is a really important skill to have. And that’s something we’re going to talk more about, the importance of teaching this country how to cook again. Because what studies show is that cooking at home is usually healthier than eating out because you have full control over how much salt is in there, how it’s prepared, whether you’re frying it or broiling it. You can control the preparation.

But people don’t cook because they don’t know how. But if kids start learning how to cook at a young age, they’re only going to get better and better as they grow up. And cooking can be really fun. It’s something that you can do as a family, everybody standing around the counter talking. Sometimes I get some of the best information from my girls on what’s going on in their lives at the dinner table or in the kitchen! If you’re all in there together, you’re inclined to talk more, eat less, have fun, and then food and cooking and nutrition and all that just becomes a way of life. So I think every kid should learn how to cook, right? 

Olivia: Yeah, at least something.

Mrs. Obama: At least something, one thing. What’s the thing you can cook?

Olivia: Well, one is peanut butter and jelly.