Our Lunch with Michelle Obama

One year after beginning a battle against childhood obesity, the first lady tells us she's not ready to give up the fight. Or her french fries.

by Marian Burros

February 8, 2011

First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a roundtable lunch to discuss Let's Move. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—Though first lady Michelle Obama had gathered 10 of us reporters for lunch at the White House Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of her “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity, her biggest surprise was some news about the President’s smoking. She confirmed rumors that have been circulating since December that Mr. Obama has, indeed, quit smoking. "It's been almost a year," she said, though she wasn’t quite sure when he stopped because: "When somebody's doing the right thing, you don't mess with them.


She added, "I haven't really poked and prodded him on this."

In the Old Family Dining Room, next to the State Dining Room in the middle of the White House, with a portrait of first lady Edith Wilson peering down on a table set with the green- and gold-bordered Truman china—and a crackling fire to take the chill off a very cold day—Mrs. Obama answered questions for about an hour. The discussion took place over a meal of very savory dishes that reflected healthy, but very flavorful, food that would make a healthy-eating convert out of almost anyone: we were served a salad of winter greens from the White House garden, a choice of pan-roasted rockfish or seared rack of lamb, and a key lime tart for dessert—all in suitably small portions. (Sound delicious? It was. Keep reading for the salad, fish, and tart recipes.)

One of the first questions was about the well-publicized White House menu for the Super Bowl, which included kielbasa, bratwurst, cheeseburgers, and deep-dish pizza. Was Mrs. Obama sending mixed messages?

Anyone who thinks that hasn’t really been listening. “My message has always been about balance," she said. "That’s why I like to talk about my obsession with french fries." She went on to explain her position: “If somebody came and said, ‘You can never have a hotdog or serve your child a slice of pizza,’ we’d never get a handle on this issue, because I think that's sometimes how people feel—that it’s all or nothing. And that's just not the case, and it’s not realistic."

Asked abut Sarah Palin’s criticism of her efforts to reduce childhood obesity, she gave the former vice-presidential candidate the brush-off: “I don’t think about her in this initiative." She made the point that Let's Move is not intended to be a political initiative. “I come at this not as a first lady, but as a mom," she said. "I mean, this was an issue I struggled with. And so did every single girlfriend that I had, and every single parent." While some Republican critics, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have claimed that Mrs. Obama is fostering a nanny state telling people how to eat, she counters with a reminder that the issue has widespread bipartisan support. Including that of one of the potential Republican nominees for president, Mike Huckabee “I don’t think there is anyone who really questions whether this is a real issue,” the first lady says.

When asked about it, she gives that kind of criticism short shrift, saying, “It’s nothing new. They are predictable. The criticism is true for anyone who occupies the White House. I just keep working. There is not a lot of time to reflect on criticism. My life is too busy.”

Her answer to her critics: “Let’s move.”

Mrs. Obama seems well aware of the difficulty of keeping the momentum going in the second year of Let's Move—that if the campaign does not engage people, something else will come along to fill the space. During the lunch, she discussed several directions in which the campaign will move. “More partnerships. More collaborations. We’re looking for more corporations that will step up and implement new, big ideas," she said. "We want more churches involved. We want more parents asking for more information.”

She offered Walmart’s recent announcement about lowering prices on fruits and vegetables and cutting the amount of fat, sugar, and salt in foods as an example of how large companies can participate. But she has no illusions about why corporations may choose to participate. “Walmart made the changes that it made partially because they wanted to be part of "Let's Move." But they were seeing their markets shift. This is a business move for them, and we know it."

The First Lady explained that when the world's largest retailer sees profit in offering healthier food, it is a positive development. “They said more of their customers are coming and looking for healthier options because, fortunately, demand is changing," she said. "And I think that can be true for every industry. But it won’t change because the first lady said to change. If the business model doesn’t work, they’re not going to do it. It’s got to be both.”

What's ahead for Let's Move in 2011? Though she didn't offer specifics, there were hints. One of the ways Mrs. Obama said she can help change the climate “is to help parents and community understand the power that they can have with the voice that they have." So it's a safe bet we'll see Mrs. Obama as cheerleader. “One of the things that I tell parents is that it’s up to us to shake the market with our demand. If we ask for it, they’ll build it. If we buy it, they’ll produce it.”

There is also talk of working on the obesity initiative internationally, the first lady said, because there is so much interest in what she has done. “I find, internationally, and Barack says the same thing, whenever he meets with a world leader, one of the first things they ask him about is the [White House] garden, because the issue of obesity is becoming an international issue. And many of the spouses that I talk to, we wind up spending a lot of time talking about the similar changes that they're seeing in their countries.”

How can you protect your kids from obesity? Here are some of the ideas that Let's Move promoted in the program's first year:

• Improve school lunches. Bringing chefs and healthy food into schools was a prominent part of the First Lady's efforts in 2010. You can take steps to improve the nutrition of the food your children eat in their school lunchroom.

• Get them moving. Mrs. Obama also emphasized the importance of keeping kids active. You can give your kids opportunities to exercise at school and at home. Remember that parents' behavior is an important influence on their children's exercise habits.

• Try some gardening. An organic garden is a great way for kids to learn about, and appreciate, "real food." You can help plan a school garden, and/or start a kids garden at home.

Want to sample the tasty meal Michelle Obama offered her visitors? Read on to see the recipes.

Recipes provided by the White House kitchen, tested and adapted for home use by the author. Official White House Photos by Chuck Kennedy

At a luncheon marking the first-year anniversary of the launch of Let's Move, Michelle Obama offered a three-course lunch of salad, rockfish or lamb (not included below), and key lime tart (the home version is a pie). This isn't a meal than can be whipped together at the last minute, but it's not beyond the reach of the home cook, either. Many of the recipe parts can be made in advance. Filled with wonderful flavors and textures, it's a perfect choice for a lunch event or a small dinner party.

White House Winter Garden Salad

Herb Vinaigrette


½ cup + 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup champagne vinegar
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh herb leaves (thyme, rosemary, oregano)
1 minced shallot
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


1. Whisk together all ingredients but the olive oil.

2. Slowly whisk in olive oil to create an emulsion.

Dressing can be made a day ahead, adding the herbs at the last minute and whisking again.

Grilled Sweet Onion


1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, cut into rounds less than ¼-inch thick
1 or 2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


1. Coat the onion with oil and season with salt and pepper.

2. Cook on stovetop or outdoor grill until charred and soft.

Onion can be prepared a day ahead, refrigerated, and warmed in the microwave before serving.

Winter Garden Salad

Yield: 6 ample servings


6–8 ounces mixed winter greens (such as lettuce or arugula), washed, stemmed, and dried
3 ounces feta cheese, cut into small cubes
Herb vinaigrette dressing (see above)
Grilled onion (see above)


Lightly dress the greens with the vinaigrette; arrange a few onion rings around the salad and place cheese cubes in center of the rings.

Fresh Pan-Roasted Rockfish, Artichoke Barigoule, and Pearl Onions

The main course works well with most whitefish. If the rockfish or the striped bass available in your region of the country has been overfished, or is categorized as a fish with too much mercury or too many PCBs, choose any white-fleshed fish that is better for your health and the environment. See our story on safe fish choices and consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood guide for more guidance.

Pearl onions


2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
18 fresh or frozen pearl onions
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 cloves garlic
Leaves from 4 sprigs thyme
1 cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


1. Sauté the onions in butter, sugar, garlic, and thyme.

2. As the onions become brown, deglaze with about ¼ cup of water at a time. Repeat until onions are golden and tender.

Artichoke Barigoule

Yield: 6 servings


½ cup extra virgin olive oil
6 artichoke hearts cut in large dice
2 carrots, thinly diced
2 shallots, finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
Leaves from 4 sprigs thyme
1 cup white wine
4 Tablespoons minced parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


1. Sauté artichokes, carrots, shallots, celery, garlic, and thyme in hot olive oil until golden, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the artichokes.

2. Deglaze pan with white wine; reduce heat and simmer until tender and liquid has been reduced to sauce consistency.

3. Squeeze on lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley.

To make ahead of time, prepare through Step 2, then refrigerate. Warm in microwave and continue with Step 3 to serve.



3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 4-ounce rockfish (or other fish) fillets, skin removed
3 Tablespoons thyme leaves


Heat pan until very hot. Add oil and sear fish on both sides until golden brown and crispy, 2 to 3 minutes each side, depending on thickness of fillets.

To assemble plate: Spoon artichoke mixture onto center of the plate. Place seared fish on top of artichokes. Arrange onions around fish.

Key Lime Pie with Yogurt

Note: Pictured is the tart served at the White House, with fruit and whipped cream; the recipe below is for a pie version.

Yield: one 9" pie


1 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 Tablespoons sugar
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1½ cups Greek yogurt
4 large egg yolks
½ cup key lime juice or regular lime juice, fresh-squeezed if possible
2 Tablespoons honey
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Whipped cream



1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Stir graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl until combined. Then press mixture evenly into bottom and up the sides of a 9" pie plate

3. Bake crust 10 minutes, then remove from oven to cool.


1. Whisk together yogurt, egg yolks, honey, and sugar; add juice and whisk until well combined.

2. Pour filling into crust, and bake for 20 minutes. (Mixture will not be firm.)

3. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

4. Serve topped with swirls of whipped cream.

Tags: Let's Move
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