Q&A with the White House Chef on Healthy Eating

White House chef Sam Kass says simple tweaks can make Americans' diets healthier and help end childhood obesity

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White House assistant chef Sam Kass prepares dinner for a White House event in Washington on Feb. 22, 2009

As the assistant chef and the senior policy adviser for healthy-food initiatives at the White House, Sam Kass knows how to fill a plate to the First Lady’s approval. Recently, we caught up with Kass at Google’s annual Think Health summit, where he spoke to health care leaders and innovators about his work with Michelle Obama on her Let’s Move initiative to curb childhood obesity. So far, Kass said, the campaign has overhauled school lunches, replaced the government’s food pyramid with the more consumer-friendly MyPlate, and encouraged pediatricians to write prescriptions for more fruits and veggies. “Yet we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible,” he said.

We asked Kass about everything, from what the U.S. is doing right in terms of healthy eating to what he’s growing in the White House garden this season.

What do you think has been the greatest breakthrough for the Let’s Move campaign so far?
There isn’t one magic bullet for what’s having the greatest impact — there are all kinds of things we are doing and will continue to do. But I think what’s really important is that we have unified the country around health.

You believe we will see the greatest changes to national health when young kids start making healthy eating decisions for themselves. Are we seeing this transition yet?
I see this all the time. We recently had the first ever Kids’ State Dinner. There was china, butler service, the President and First Lady were there — the whole nine yards. It was amazing. Now these kids have gone back to their schools and communities and they’re heroes. Why? Because they cooked some vegetables in a creative way and they used whole grains to make healthy dishes. They’ve started owning this for themselves, and it’s what makes them great. We start seeing this everywhere, and that’s what gives me great hope that we are really going to turn this around.

(MORE: Can Laws Against Junk Food in Schools Rein In Child Obesity?)

What are some of the simplest changes American families can make to their diets?
There are a lot of little things that can be done. It’s the First Lady’s experience that little changes can have huge impact. If families just filled half their plate with fruits and vegetables at dinnertime, it would have a transformative impact on their health. If we drank more water and low-fat dairy and nonsugary drinks, that would also have a transformative impact. Really any of the seven MyPlate tips, if we did any of those, we would really have a great impact.

Sometimes it feels overwhelming. It feels like these problems are just so big, but in the end, the solutions can be quite small, approachable and doable. I think it’s important to remember that. We need to break through and make sure parents have that kind of information they need and we can deliver it to them in ways that are useful.

You trained under chef Christian Domschitz in Vienna. What can we learn from the way people eat abroad?
I think there’s a tremendous amount that we can all learn from the world. People are learning from us. American chefs are some of the greatest chefs in the world now. But of course we always have more to learn. I think what I’ve seen [abroad] is a love and care for food and the quality of ingredients. There’s care taken in making sure people have time to prepare them properly with good portion sizes.

(MORE: Disney’s Diet: No More Junk-Food Ads on Kids Channels)

What are you growing in the White House garden right now?
We are just ending summer and moving into fall, so we are just picking our last watermelons. Our tomatoes are still doing great. We have a lot of peppers, our zucchinis and yellow squash are just finishing up. We have a bunch of beans right now. And of course, pumpkins. We have the best pumpkin harvest of our time here by quite a lot. We will have a fun Halloween.

What are some of the favorite meals in the White House?
That’s top-secret information. We balance. The First Lady practices what she preaches, which is moderation. When we put out the MyPlate guide, she came in and said, “We’re cooking the MyPlate.” That’s what we’re doing. What she’s always said to her kids, and throughout the Let’s Move campaign, is that if we’re eating balanced all the time, then when we go to a party and have pizza or cake, it’s no problem. We all love fries and burgers and all that stuff. But we just can’t have it day in and day out. That’s when we run into trouble.

What did you have this morning for breakfast?
Today the Google team provided a healthy breakfast. In line with MyPlate, I had granola with low-fat yogurt and fruit. I’m also a big oatmeal guy. Oatmeal and bananas are pretty standard for me.

MORE: The Sad State of American Kids’ Food Environments