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09/03/2014 09:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What An 8th Grader Can Teach You About Eating Well

Coral Von Zumwalt

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By Abbe Wright

Find out how a 13-year-old's love for cooking and educating others led to face time with Michelle Obama and helped her start her own not-for-profit.

At age 5, Haile Thomas, from Tucson, Ariz., began her cooking career, helping her mother prepare the family meals -- but not the ordinary chicken-fingers-and-grilled-cheese kid fare. "My parents are from Jamaica, so I grew up eating oxtail and jerk chicken," she says. With her adventurous palate and knack for wielding a whisk, it wasn't long before Thomas was helping plan the weekly menu.

In 2010, 9-year-old Thomas and her 4-year-old sister, Nia, started a YouTube channel called Kids Can Cook, featuring videos of the two whipping up dishes like turkey meatloaf in their Tucson kitchen. "We wanted to show that cooking isn't hard," says Thomas. "It's great to learn, not only to feed yourself but also to know what's healthy."

The next year at a conference, Thomas met Sam Kass, former White House chef and senior policy adviser on nutrition, which led to face time with Michelle Obama. "It was just crazy for me to actually talk to the first lady of the United States," says Thomas. "I can't believe this all started because I mixed some eggs when I was 5." Inspired in part by Mrs. Obama and her Let's Move! campaign, as well as by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (for which she had been selected as a youth advisory board member), Thomas cofounded the not-for-profit HAPPY (Healthy, Active, Positive, Purposeful Youth) Organization to get her peers excited about making nutritious meals and being energetic, and to show that good habits don't require cutting out everything fun. "With the right seasoning -- like a dash of Jamaican curry powder -- vegetables can taste as good as potato chips," she says.

This past year, Thomas continued to work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and as a champion of Let's Move! She also helped develop a children's menu for Hyatt hotels -- all while holding down her other job: attending seventh grade. But Thomas has already recognized that cooking and educating others are among her two greatest passions: "I'd like to get a degree in nutrition and continue speaking about health and wellness. Even though I'll be grown up, I can still talk about it, and that's my plan."

Her Advice for Eating Healthfully

"Get over the idea that green is gross. And sample a new food at least 10 times before deciding you don't like it. Your taste buds might tell you something different."

The Best Thing About Being Her Age

"It's a good age to be in command of a kitchen. I don't need an adult's help with much anymore. And it's a good age to be influencing others. I'm not too old or too young, so my peers still listen to me."

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