DECATUR — It’s been said you are what you eat, so when Chef Ryan Rogiers and his 10-year-old stepson, Taddy Pettit, stumbled upon the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, they were excited to not only help promote healthy eating to children across the country but also to show them that nutritious food can still taste delicious.
Rogiers, a chef and culinary arts instructor at Richland Community College’s Culinary Arts Institute, said he and Taddy learned about the contest when he was researching healthy recipes online. The contest is aimed at kids and sponsored by Epicurious, the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Education and first lady Michelle Obama.
“I was looking at recipes online when I saw information about (the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge),” Rogiers said, noting that when he stumbled upon it, the deadline was only days away. “We ended up having a couple late nights in the kitchen (experimenting with recipes), but it was a lot of fun.”
In its second year, the contest invited children ages 8 to 12, with a parent or guardian, to create a healthy, affordable original and delicious lunchtime recipe.
In support of Let’s Move!, an initiative launched by the first lady to help address childhood obesity, and the Department of Agriculture’s My Plate guidelines, the recipe had to represent all of the food groups (including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy foods), with fruits and vegetables making up roughly half the dish.
Rogiers said he and Taddy were up to the task, and he was right: Out of more than 1,300 recipe entries, their healthy dish, along with 53 others representing all of the states, three territories and Washington, D.C., took top honors and earned them a trip to the White House, where they will be honored during a kids’ “state dinner” on Tuesday that will feature some of the winning recipes.
“I’m really excited to meet Michelle Obama,” said Taddy, who will be a sixth-grader at Oakwood Grade School in Oakwood this fall. “It will be my first time in Washington. I’m excited to see the Declaration of Independence, too.”
Rogiers, who has never been to Washington before either, said coming up with a healthy dish wasn’t as big of a challenge since Taddy is already a pretty healthy eater.
“Taddy’s mom is a vegetarian, so he and his siblings have been exposed to fruits and vegetables and healthy foods all their lives,” he said. “It’s important to eat fresh, and it’s a lot harder to change your tastes as you get older.”
Inspired by Taddy’s love of spicy food, Rogiers and his stepson put their heads together to create a tasty Mexican dish that kids would like.
“Ryan and I were talking about what we should make, and I mentioned the idea of a bean burrito,” Taddy said.
While most bean burritos include cheese, pinto beans and seasoned rice using a flour tortilla, Taddy and Rogiers decided to make the dish healthier by using a black bean puree that included onion, carrots, celery, olive oil and quinoa, a grainlike substance that is similar to couscous. They also used a whole wheat tortilla to wrap the mixture and decided to accompany it with avocado, a variety of fresh lettuces and a jicama-grilled corn salsa.
“Tad wanted to put Flaming Hot Cheetos on (the wrap),” Rogiers said with a smile as the two prepared their dish June 27 in the Richland Community College culinary arts kitchen, “but we knew we couldn’t do that, so we made a spicy salsa” packed with jicama, a vegetable similar to a turnip, bell peppers, minced jalepenos, grilled corn, red onion and cilantro to serve with it.
“When we first made (the recipe), we had my little sister Ave try it,” said Taddy, noting that the 6-year-old taste tester enjoyed it. “It’s healthy, and it tastes good.”
After submitting the recipe, a picture of the finished dish and their application to the contest in mid-May, Rogiers said it was just a matter of waiting.
“We first learned we were semifinalists,” he said, “and then, after they cooked our dish in a kitchen in New York and judged it, we learned we were one of the 54 winners. We didn’t think we’d win, but we’re excited to represent Illinois.”
“I was really excited when I found out we won,” added Taddy, noting that he’s excited to see their recipe in a cookbook featuring all of the winning recipes.
While he enjoys playing tennis and has thought about pursuing it professionally, the 10-year-old said he’s also considered culinary arts.
“I’ve thought about being a chef,” he said, smiling, noting that he’d like to cook again with his stepdad.
Rogiers said when it comes to promoting healthy eating to kids, recipes that allow them to participate are key.
“With our recipe, it lets the children be involved a few different ways,” he said. “If they’re old enough, they can help cut the vegetables and cook the black beans. The second interaction is to lay all of the ingredients out and let them put the vegetables or toppings they choose on the wrap and roll it up themselves.
“If they take part in the meal preparation, they are more likely to eat it. Healthy eating is important for kids because it helps them focus more in school, be more active and just have a better overall demeanor.”
“We’re very proud of him,” said Taddy’s grandparents, Kathy and Steve Layden. “This is a great opportunity for him to get to explore the food world and Washington, D.C.”
First lady Michelle Obama said she’s excited to celebrate with the winners this week.
“Our Kids’ State Dinner is one of my favorite events of the year,” she said in a news release. “I’m counting down the days until the winners join me at the White House to celebrate these healthy and delicious meals that kids everywhere will love.”
Tanya Steel, Epicurious’ editor-in-chief, said the number of entrants and the sophistication of this year’s winning recipes shows that kids understand how important healthy eating is.
“The insight from the kids who entered the challenge demonstrates that today’s youth understands the need to strengthen their bodies and minds with the most wholesome ingredients available.”
Taddy agreed, “It’s really important to try to eat healthy and stay healthy.”