At first glance, Michelle Obama's new coffee table book "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" seems to be about, well, gardening. Or how the first lady helped build a garden on the South Lawn that grows fruits and veggies for weeknight dinners, as well as more formal affairs.
But the garden is really a conversation starter, says the first lady -- a way to keep people talking about not just what we put in our bodies, but the traditions we build around our diets, from how food is grown to the need to enjoy it at regular family dinners.
During a Tuesday roundtable in front of the Kitchen Garden, Obama gave her thoughts on parenting and nutrition.
On the first family's nightly, 6:30 p.m. dinners:
We really get to catch up with our kids and we get to know what's going on in their heads in ways that we miss otherwise. I mean, I don't have the drive in with them in the carpool, so I don't hear those conversations.
And we also find that is a great opportunity to teach lessons. I mean, whether it's a lecture about how to hold your fork so you don't look like a beast.
Malia had some real strange way of holding her fork, and she just thought it was clever and unique. And we were like, no. You've got to work on that fork hold.
On picky eaters:
It doesn't work as much to just say, 'Eat your vegetables.'
Putting it in a broader context of why is it important, and what did you do today right before your track meet when you felt really tired? What did you have for lunch, how much water did you drink -- that's directly correlated to how you felt in your track meet. And tomorrow, try to eat a better lunch and drink more water throughout the day; see what your performance is like. [And then] let's talk about it at dinner.
On moms cutting themselves slack:
You know, I would say, first of all, people would have to -- particularly moms -- we have to figure out what works for us. I don't want this book or anything we're doing around nutrition to be one more worrisome thing for a mother to think that, 'If I'm not doing this, then I'm not being a good mother.' Which is why we talk about different types of gardens.
I mean, this is an 1,100-square-foot garden, and I couldn't tend this if I didn't have the National Park Services and volunteers and people helping me. But we also talk about smaller potting opportunities, things that -- you can grow a tomato plant in a pot on your backyard. You don't have to grow three varieties of lettuces, you can start with one thing -- one or two things -- and do it in a way that's manageable.
Her daily eats:
I try to eat -- when I'm being good -- five meals, a breakfast, which can be like stir-fried vegetables, tofu, or oatmeal. This is when I'm doing what I'm supposed to do.
And then I'll have a snack, something like this [pointing to a tray of sliced apples and honey from the White House beehive] or a vegetable tray or sometimes a protein shake ... then lunch. This last year I've tried to change it so my lunch is my biggest meal ... like today, I had fish and vegetables, stir-fried vegetables. And if I'm going to have a carb, like a brown rice or a potato or something, I'll have it at lunch.
But I kind of let the chefs figure that out. I give them guidelines, because I don't have time to think about, oh, I want to have this for lunch. One of my favorite lunches is veggie pizza on whole wheat bread. It's really good, just loaded with vegetables and cheese and tomato sauce. I love that.
And then, dinner is again up to the chefs. It will have a meat, a grain, vegetables, salad. If I'm trying to be lean I'll just do a salad. And if I'm hungry I'll add a protein on top of that.
On training kids' taste buds:
Kids adjust their taste buds to what they eat. So the more processed foods they eat, the more fast foods they eat, the more they will crave a certain level of sodium. So then when you start giving them regular food, they will initially rebel because it's not salty enough, it's not sweet enough. The sweetness isn't that artificial sweetener that they're used to.
On helping her daughters keep a healthy perspective:
My philosophy is if you're eating what you're supposed to eat 80, 90 percent of the time -- I don't want my kids to have to worry about food. If we have a birthday party, if we're going out or if they're going out with friends, I don't want them counting calories and looking at anything. But I do encourage them, they're going to camp this summer, and I do say, think about how you should feed yourself …
I don't know what they'll do in the world, but all I can do is arm them with the information.
Kids are kids. Kids are like we are. If we could eat ice cream and hamburgers and chicken fingers and French fries every day, I certainly would. I would do it.
But it doesn't work to keep us thriving.
The transcript of the roundtable talk has been edited and condensed.
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