The First Lady of Food: Michelle Obama

February 9, 2015 | By | Comments (70)



To trace the origin of Let’s Move!, the first lady’s program to end childhood obesity within a generation, you have to go back several years before the Obama presidency, back to a routine visit to the family’s Chicago pediatrician. That’s when Michelle Obama first learned that her daughters’ diets were out of whack. “I thought we had it all together,” Mrs. Obama told me recently, but the doctor said otherwise. Like many parents, Michelle and Barack Obama were working full time, and they relied too much on takeout and processed foods to feed Malia and Sasha. So Mrs. Obama took control, cooking two more meals a week—simple fare like baked chicken, couscous, and steamed broccoli—and eliminating prepackaged lunches and sugary canned juices.


“By the time we went back for the next visit, our pediatrician said, ‘What have you done? I haven’t seen these [body mass index] numbers change in such a short period of time in this way in a while,’ ” Mrs. Obama recalls.

I’ve come to Washington, D.C., to talk to her about her role as the most food-focused first lady ever, and it hits me within the first minute of our conversation how personally she takes her healthy food agenda.

“Look,” she says, hammering home her point, “if I didn’t figure this out, I’m sure there are millions of families and parents who are getting it wrong.”

Collectively, we’ve been getting it wrong for decades. Supersized portions, snacking overload, sugary drinks, and the replacement of home-cooked meals with restaurant fare and fast food—along with factors like stress, poverty, and sedentary lifestyles—have fueled our obesity epidemic. Since the launch of Let’s Move! five years ago, obesity rates have leveled off, with some noticeable decreases in certain states and age ranges, and Mrs. Obama’s team has rallied a complicated network of government agencies, churches, farmers, chefs, and athletes to address the issue in the classroom. The administration has also pushed through an aggressive reform agenda, updating Nutrition Facts labels on products and overhauling the school lunch program.


With daughter Malia in 2010.

Critics accuse her of running a nutritional nanny state—politics don’t belong at the dinner table any more than they do in the doctor’s office, the argument goes—and some students have railed against the new cafeteria fare by posting photos of their pizzas and burgers on social media with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. The first lady remains unfazed. “The most powerful thing that [people] can do for their overall health is feed their bodies good nutritious food,” she says. “If you don’t like the doctor, if you don’t like the government, if you don’t like folks messing with your life, the best thing to do is make sure you’re healthy.”

Mrs. Obama’s relationship with good food started as a child on the South Side of Chicago. Her father, Fraser Robinson, sold produce off the back of a vegetable truck as a boy, and her mother, Marian Robinson, helped tend a family plot in a neighborhood World War II victory garden—experiences she cites, along with the small garden Eleanor Roosevelt had planted, as inspirations for the White House kitchen garden. Carved into the South Lawn in 2009, the garden was a touchstone of Let’s Move! It also heralded a national rise in backyard and community gardening and inspired White House chefs to craft healthier menus.


Harvesting carrots in the White House kitchen garden with elementary school students in 2009.

When Mrs. Obama was a child, her mom shopped on the family’s working-
class budget. “She was famous for her lemon chicken,” Mrs. Obama says, “and that was a good Sunday dish,” as was roast beef that would go into sandwiches for lunch on Monday and Tuesday. Weeknights meant lasagna, the “unfortunate liver Wednesdays,” fish on Fridays, and the occasional pizza takeout. “There was a pattern to what we ate,” she says. “There were familiar flavors … we would sit around the table with the plastic tablecloth, and that’s when we would catch up and we’d talk about what we were eating, talk about what was going on in the day.”

The family has a bigger table at the White House now and chefs doing the cooking, “but the conversation and the mood and the tone are still the same. [Between 6:30 and 7 p.m.] is our most important time of the day,” she says.

With her own struggles as a young parent in mind, Mrs. Obama now aims to spark a national conversation about family dinner without making parents feel judged. “We have to be deliberate about [getting back to home cooking traditions],” she says. “It won’t happen by accident. People are busier today. Life is different … but we have to find those new healthier norms.”


The Robinson family in the late 1960s: Fraser, Marian, Michelle, and Craig

Sam Kass, the chef and executive director of Let’s Move!, recently stepped down, and Mrs. Obama hired Deb Eschmeyer, a national leader on nutrition and agriculture, to fill his shoes. The move is seen by many as a doubling down on nutrition in the final years of the presidency.

Mrs. Obama will measure the success of Let’s Move!—and her legacy—against today’s generation of kindergartners; new healthy norms will mean that fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains will be second nature by the time they’re in college. By then she’ll be long gone from the White House, but she plans on maintaining a public life committed to raising a nation of healthier children. The food world will be watching.


Mrs. Obama shows students one way to stay active, 2011.

“Mrs. Obama’s leadership and presence from her office has been staggering,” says Andrew Zimmern, the Minnesota chef and TV food personality. “She legitimized the food movement for many and provided real goal setting. She didn’t just advocate for wellness in the food system; she walked the talk. How can we ever go back on Let’s Move? We can’t.”

Read Hunter’s full interview with the first lady.
Portrait by Peggy Sirota


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  4. Courage2Believe

    Great stuff!! I didn’t know know she was such a great cook until 2 years ago. Michelle Obama is featured in my book, “7 Types of Queens, Kings Desire.” Cooking Queen chapter.

    March 23, 2016 at 12:51 am
  5. Ima Okpongete

    I am from Nigeria. But not too long ago I was in Washington DC. I was visibly impressed to see that the eating habit of the Americans have wonderfully improved. As an Afircan, we eat vegetables and fish a lot. When I entered most of the restaurant I discovered I could make a choice of meal almost as though I was in Nigeria. Well cooked meals, well fried chicken,lots of well fried fish, veggies, well spiced n salted meals. I thought several looked healthier. I sought to find out what had changed. A relation then informed me that it was the handiwork of the American First Lady-Mrs Obama.
    Well done Mitchell. Keep doing what you are doing. Many are quite appreciative. Those whose pet love is hate may not, but,then,they don’t ever really matter.

    March 25, 2015 at 5:10 pm
  6. Nancie McDermott

    Thank you for this wonderful issue of COOKING LIGHT! It’s a treasure, from the beautiful cover with our magnificent First Lady’s smile for starters and a bonanza of recipes (Morrocan Pork Chops, Whole Grain Pecan Blondies, Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes), and great features (fitness trackers and wok tips), to a peek inside Chef Hugh Acheson’s kitchen and the superb feature story on Let’s Cook’s fifth birthday. I made both the tacos and spaghetti already, and am so touched that you’ve made a whole curriculum available online in English and Spanish — you are walking your talk. The two year Family Kitchen program is outstanding, and echoes our First Lady’s community spirit and generous smart approach to helping America make good health-full living our everyday way. Keep up the great work — the truly good work.

    March 10, 2015 at 12:09 pm
  7. Liz Colombo

    As a mom and grandmother who has served home cooked meals six out of seven days a week, while working, going to school and doing everything life entails, I’m with the first lady and Cooking Light. Thank you for caring about having healthy kids and families!! Keep up the good work

    February 22, 2015 at 4:55 pm
  8. Sandy

    I liked this issue. Lots of good recipes. The only thing missing was Ms. Obama’s mother’s famous lemon chicken recipe; including that recipe would have brought everything together!

    February 22, 2015 at 10:10 am
  9. Carrie

    Great article! I was a cafeteria manager when the news rules started and yes, it was extremely difficult to meet the new requirements, make foods the kids will eat, and stay on budget. But school lunches were absolutely autrocious before the rule changes!! There were schools serving French fries and pizza EVERY single day! One school’s “entree” was saltine crackers and American cheese (I am not kidding I saw the menu myself!). It was time that something was done about what schools were allowed to serve. So all politics aside, great job Mrs. Obama and great article Cooking Light!

    February 22, 2015 at 7:24 am
  10. Heather

    I have subscribed to Cooking Light for many years but promptly canceled by subscription today when my newest issue arrived. I would never pay a dime for a magazine with Barack or Michelle Obama on the cover and am disgusted that my cooking magazine has ventured into a political arena. I have no problem with her healthy food agenda but cannot tolerate her. I will not continue to support a magazine who puts her on the cover.

    February 20, 2015 at 5:53 pm
  11. eliihass

    Thank you so much Mr. Lewis and Cooking Light magazine for honoring our magnificent First Lady Michelle Obama and her very smart and important work ensuring a healthier and brighter future for all of America’s children – and families.

    She’s such a genuine inspiration and great role model who not only walks the talk, but remains heroically stoic, steady, lovely and gracious – even in the face of unprovoked and hate-filled attacks that not only malign her in the most maliciously personal and vile ways, but also viciously dehumanize her in ways no other First Lady – or for that matter president – has ever been in our history.

    She’s effortlessly and unpretentiously awe-inspiring – and she’s a lovelier, much better and more tolerant woman and human being than most will ever be.

    She’s terrific!

    February 18, 2015 at 8:34 pm
  12. Lin

    I was dismayed when I saw the cover this month. As a passionate cook, I’d rather see an upcoming chef, on the cover with an original recipe. When you start mixing the liberal agenda into your magazine it is enough to make me stop and reconsider if I want to renew my subscription.
    This First Family seem to constantly be in our faces and personally, I’m a bit tired of it.
    Stick to the recipes and healthy recipes.

    February 17, 2015 at 7:29 pm
  13. dee dee

    Let’s not forget to eat mushroom in our diet they are so good for us and help with our weight the ones like portabella’s and baby bella’s, maitake’s .shiitake’s, reishi .oyster’s,and reishi mushroom’s. So many ways to add them to our diets. remember even dogs can eat maitake mushrooms too just add a little bite cooked only never raw to dogs. They help with heart health and stimulate the production of killer T- cells to help stop cancer. I love to talk healthy eating for my fur kids and my family as well as my parrot after all we are what we eat. Just 2-3 times a week adding mushroom’s with other healthy foods you can not go wrong with eating healthy. And, yes your pets also. I am all for eating veggies, lean meats, and fruits and berries.ASK my children who now in their late 30’s and early 40’s… they never knew what a soda was until that party at school. when I made cookies never bought them too much sugar. I made cookies with wheat germ and pure veggies and fruits…. they were healthy as a treat from time to time now they also feed their children the same way.They are all healthy and never got colds or any thing like the kids who ate junk foods. I don’t see anything wrong with trying to help others in teaching we are what we eat.I am alway’s trying to learn all I can about eating and staying well with my diet.

    February 15, 2015 at 4:23 pm
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  15. alaing2

    I bought this issue specifically because our first lady was on the cover. I’m looking forward to reading and trying new healthy recipes. How people can get worked up about the non-political issue of eating healthy is beyond me. Each FLOTUS has their own project that they focus on. Whether it is learning to read, or eating right – ALL are worthy goals. Thanks Michelle Obama! Thanks cooking light for putting her on your cover.

    February 15, 2015 at 12:52 pm
    • Cynthia Clouser

      If you are complaining because the first lady Michelle Obama is on the cover and did an interview (good one at that), it’s not because of her progress with helping to create healthy breakfast and lunches for our children, prevent obesity and encouraging families to garden, obviously.likely,it’s because she’s the presidents wife, maybe because she is African-American, I don’t know. Why is it a bad thing for a presidential family to do the right thing and help folks be healthy. All these food companies sure don’t care. The pharmaceutical industry absolutely doesn’t, nor do many physicians. Otherwise,more of them would be advocating, just as Mrs. Obama is. How is it bad to encourage a healthy long life. It makes no difference, who is encouraging us and actually doing something about, this is..a good thing.

      February 18, 2015 at 2:49 pm
  16. Jen

    As I predicted when I saw this month’s issue, people are over-reacting. She is the First Lady of the United States. The fact is that she is trying to combat a serious problem of childhood obesity. The current generation of children has a lower life expectancy than their parents because of poor diet and lack of activity. Whether you like it or not, because the government subsidizes school lunches, they have always had a say in what goes in them. Why is trying to make them healthier for our kids something for which she is being vilified? Would you honestly prefer that the Coca Cola company and big agriculture continue to determine what our kids eat? I don’t think they have our children’s best interest in mind. I didn’t always agree with George W. Bush’s policies, but I didn’t think Laura Bush was a horrible person because she wanted people to know how to read. Kudos to Cooking Light for having the guts to put Michelle Obama on the cover

    February 14, 2015 at 1:54 pm
  17. Tracy

    I have been a subscriber to CL for I can’t even remember how long. I have never subscribed to any other magazines-cooking or other. I still enjoy ‘old school’- getting the paper version in my mail box. It is a lovely little treat to sit and sift through the recipes and dog ear the ones I want to try, to read informational stories, real people foodie stories, etc. Shocking to see Mrs. Obama on the cover this month. Not so much that it was her; it could have been anyone. Had it been a chef, it would have felt unfamiliar to have a person on the cover. But the First Lady is to the extreme. Instead of seeing a lovely coq au vin or something similar that would warm your senses, I feel I’ve just been delivered political propaganda. Stick to what you know and what makes you unique from all the other magazines-good, healthy food.

    February 13, 2015 at 7:18 pm
  18. Deborah

    Cooking Light has been under new leadership for several months now. I prefer the old Cooking Light because I subscribed purely for the recipes…..lots and lots of recipes, many exploring different cultural and life style ways of eating. I do not need to learn to cook and am surprised if market research showed rookie cooks purchasing this particular publication. Here is a quote from the new editor:
    “As a passionate cook and journalist, I couldn’t be more excited to lead this award-winning brand and marry Cooking Light’s tried and true recipes with smart wellness coverage,” said Lewis. “We will do this in fun and new ways on multiple platforms.”
    I’m disappointed; most women’s magazines already do this. CL is looking to be another Woman’s Day, Ladies Home Journal, etc.
    I have no problem with Michelle Obama. She is doing good things.

    February 13, 2015 at 9:10 am
  19. louise

    So many bitter nasty people commenting here! Grow up and get a life. But I suppose that is too much to ask. Good riddance to you!

    More power to Michelle Obama for keeping up the fight against obesity, and keeping the message of good food and more exercise aimed at kids. Busy families need all the help they can get.

    February 13, 2015 at 7:51 am

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