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Updated Jul 10, 2013 - 9:29 am

Phoenix student shows off her culinary skills at White House event

Phoenix fifth-grader Alexandra Nickle at the White House for the "Kids' State Dinner" honoring 54 kids from around the country for their healthy, winning recipes in first lady Michelle Obama's healthy lunchtime challenge. (Cronkite News Service photo by Evan Bell)

WASHINGTON -- Phoenix fifth-grader Alexandra Nickle wants to be a "graphic artist and dog-shelter owner" when she grows up, but it was her cooking creativity that landed her in the White House Tuesday.

The Hopi Elementary School student was one of 54 kids from around the nation who were honored for healthy meals they concocted as part of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative against childhood obesity.

The students were feted at a "kids' state dinner" modeled after an official White House state dinner, complete with receiving line and remarks from the president and first lady, before a meal featuring some of the kids' recipes.

"It was spectacular," said Alexandra's mom, Lauren Nickle, one of the 54 parents in attendance.

The lunch included remarks from Haile Thomas, a Tucson seventh-grader who was last year's Arizona entrant in the healthy cooking challenge.

Haile, who was a guest of Michelle Obama's at this year's State of the Union address, said she was honored to have been asked back.

"It was amazing being here for a second time not being a contestant," Haile said.

More than 1,300 recipes were entered in the "Healthy Lunchtime Challenge," which was organized by the White House and the food website Epicurious.com.

The winners were selected by a panel of judges that included White House chef Sam Kass, the Epicurious editor-in-chief and others.

Alexandra's winning entry, Banana's black bean burrito, reflects Lauren Nickle's nickname for her daughter and her affinity for bananas -- even though Alexandra said in a blogpost at Let's Move website that she doesn't want "any other kids in Arizona" to know her nickname.

Still, she thinks her burrito would be a hit with kids back home. Her recipe combines mangoes, black beans, onions, whole-grain tortillas and other ingredients.

"Kids in Arizona love bean burritos," she said on the blog.

At the White House Tuesday, the 10-year-old called the first lady "really nice" and said the dinner was "very nice and very beautiful."

Mrs. Obama told the young chefs that the kids' state dinner was "mirrored exactly off of state dinners" with one exception: "It's OK to use your fingers," she joked.

President Barack Obama later dropped in, musing that the first lady never lets him "pick up something with my fingers at state dinners."

Mrs. Obama acknowledged the work the winners put in to their recipes and encouraged them "to realize your dreams."

"We can't wait to see what you do with your lives," she said.

The president echoed the first lady, saying he "could not be prouder" of the young chefs-in-training.

Still, do not expect the commander in chief to become the commander in chef anytime soon. "Frankly, I'm not a good cook," he said.

After the president's remarks and lunch, singer Rachel Crow entertained guests with a rendition of "Forget You" by Cee Lo Green, as well as some of her own songs.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the contest a "terrific opportunity for kids to be creative with food."

"Young people are interested in cooking," said Vilsack, who called obesity "a major issue for us."

After the dinner and entertainment, the guests were escorted out to the White House kitchen garden to learn how the White House grows its own vegetables for meals. In the garden, Alexandra reflected on the visit.

"I was taught to be more healthier and stuff like that," she said.

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