Move over, chicken fingers and fries: The winners of Michelle Obama‘s 2014 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, who will be honored at a state dinner with the first lady on July 18, have proven that kid-friendly cooking doesn’t have to be pedestrian, predictable or something that comes from a box.
The contest, which began in 2011, calls for healthy recipes created by children ages 8 through 12. This year, more than 1500 entries were submitted from the 50 states as well as Washington, D.C. and the U.S. territories. The winners have been flown to the nation’s capital for fun, sightseeing and of course the big dinner. Last year, the POTUS himself crashed the party and spoke to the crowd telling them, “All of you have lifted up the whole fact that food can be fun and it can be healthy … you are setting up habits that are going to be great for your entire life.”
In a video about the contest, Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass said that the recipes were judged on criteria such as healthiness, taste, flavor, affordability and what he called “the creativity of their story.”
The 54 winning recipes, which include preparations for dishes like catfish sliders and kale wraps, sound like fare you’d find at a stylish cafe — not a school cafeteria. “I am so impressed with the sophistication and talent these kids possess,” Epicurious special projects contributor and contest creator Tanya Steel told PEOPLE. “I never imagined three years ago that this would turn into this annual and inspiring event. It’s a way to help kids meet their full potential and live happy, healthy lives,” she added.
We snagged three of winning recipes, which are tasty enough to please both kids and parents.
North Carolina winner Rajen Dey, 11, said in his contest entry that he was inspired to create his recipe after he tried kati rolls at a restaurant in India. “When we got them, they were way too spicy. I drank almost a gallon of water! When we came back to the U.S., I was trying to make a roll that was healthy, delicious, and not spicy,” he wrote. Dey’s signature tweak? Adding an egg to his kati roll, which he claims makes it “the best roll ever made.”
Yummy and Healthy Kati Rolls
Makes 8 servings
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
1 minced garlic clove
½ cup chopped tomato
4 mushrooms, chopped
¼ tsp. ground turmeric powder
¼ tsp. ground garam masala
¼ tsp. red chili powder (cayenne)
¼ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into small cubes
9 whole-wheat tortillas
½ red onion, peeled and chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
½ cucumber, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
Juice from 2 limes
Salt to taste
1. In a large sauté pan or wok, warm oil on moderate heat. Add the onion, ginger, and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes. Add turmeric, garam masala, red chili powder, cumin, coriander, and chicken and cook, stirring often, until chicken is cooked, through about 15 minutes. Season with salt to taste and transfer to a bowl.
2. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs. Using a nonstick pan, cook the eggs over moderate heat. Place a tortilla on top of the egg while it’s still cooking. Cook for 1 minute, then flip the eggs over. Cook 1 minute more, and slide the eggs onto a plate.
3. Diagonally on a tortilla, place a few tablespoons of the chicken mixture and eggs, as well as red onion, carrots, cucumber, and cilantro. Squeeze lime juice over the mixture and roll the tortilla up.
When you look at the photo of the soup submitted by U.S. Virgin Islands winner Ahlissa Pierce, 9, it’s easy to see how she got inspired. “One day I saw a rainbow, and I was thinking, how could I put all these colors inside one meal? Then I thought of my mom’s and grandmother’s chicken soup, which really didn’t have that many vegetables or that much color,” she told PEOPLE. Pierce hit almost every hue in the spectrum by adding veggies like red peppers, carrots, zucchini and purple cabbage. She also swapped in more nutrient-rich whole-wheat flour for the white flour that her mother traditionally uses.
Ahlissa’s Rainbow Soup
Makes 10 servings
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1½ yellow onions, peeled and minced
4 skinless boneless chicken breasts, chopped
6 minced garlic cloves
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 bell peppers—red, orange, and yellow—seeded and chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 red potatoes, chopped
1½ cups chopped purple cabbage
1½ cups cubed pumpkin or sweet potato
1 zucchini, chopped
3 okras, sliced
1½ cups chopped baby spinach
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1. In a large stockpot, warm the oil over moderate heat. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken, garlic, parsley, peppers, and 1 cup of water and cook for 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and 11 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
2. To make the dumplings, combine the whole-wheat flour, sea salt, and olive oil in a large bowl. Drizzle ¼ cup water in slowly and knead for 2 minutes. Shape into small balls and flatten. Add to soup during its last 10 minutes of cooking and then serve.
Even at age 11, Cody Vasquez, who won from the state of Arizona, is a Mexican-food expert: His parents own a small Mexican restaurant and he spends plenty of time helping out in the kitchen. In his entry, he wrote that his shrimp tacos, which he paired with a watermelon and jicama salad, would be “very refreshing on a warm summer day.” Along with his parents and Italian grandfather, who cooks for the family on Sundays, Vasquez told PEOPLE that there’s a certain Food Network star who inspires him: “I really love Giada De Laurentiis, she’s probably my favorite. I like that all her dishes are healthy and simple, and I’m Italian and Mexican and I really like that she uses a lot of those flavors.”
Shrimp Tacos with Watermelon Jicama Salad
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 small seedless watermelon, chopped
½ cup jicama, peeled and julienned
¼ cup chopped cilantro
½ fresh jalapeño, de-seeded and finely diced
Juice from 1 lime
2 tbsp. finely diced pickled jalapeños
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
Salt and pepper, to taste
Red chili powder, to taste
Ground cumin, to taste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 dozen 5-inch white corn tortillas
2 cups shredded cabbage
1 avocado, sliced
1 lime, quartered
1. In a large bowl, mix together the first five ingredients.
2. In a small bowl, combine the pickled jalapeños with the plain Greek yogurt. Place in the refrigerator.
3. In another large bowl, lightly season the shrimp with salt, pepper, red chili powder, and cumin.
4. In a medium sauté pan, warm the olive oil. Add the shrimp and cook until pink and lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes.
5. Warm the tortillas on a grill, in a pan, or in the microwave.
6. Place three shrimp in the tortilla and top with a drizzle of your jalapeño yogurt sauce; top with cabbage and avocado and serve with a lime wedge. Top with your favorite salsa.