SALT LAKE CITY — Elayna Saley is proof that it pays to eat your broccoli.
On Friday, the opening day of the Summer Olympic Games, the 8-year-old will be enjoying a tasty lunch in London, namely because her lunch routine at home goes something like this:
“I’ll have a bird in the nest, some little trees and a moo,” she tells her father, Chad Saley, when she puts in her order at “Daddy-O’s Diner” — the retro kitchen inside her family’s Sugarhouse home. For those who don’t speak “diner,” she says, “that’s chicken and rice, broccoli and a glass of milk. You know — healthy food.”
The Dilworth Elementary third-grader has helped cook and serve meals for her family since she was old enough to read the customized menus created by her mother, Victoria, to make mealtimes fun.
Last month, that love for creativity in the kitchen won her the grand prize in McDonalds’ Happy Meal Chefs Contest: a one-week trip for her and her parents to the summer games, where Elayna will watch swimming and volleyball events, take in the sights of London and participate in a cook-off with other budding chefs from around the world.
“I’m going to make coconut couscous cups with chicken, sweet potatoes and carrots,” she says. “And a curry sauce. My little brothers like it, so I’m pretty sure everyone else will, too.”
Hoping to encourage other kids to develop their talents in the kitchen, Elayna and her dad recently joined me for a Free Lunch in their 1950s diner, complete with slide-in vinyl booths, a mini jukebox and red-and-white checked curtains. I brought chicken strips and hamburgers while Elayna supplied the healthy part of the meal: a fruit salad made with strawberries, melon, grapes, blackberries, pineapple and coconut milk — one of her favorite “secret” ingredients.
“Whenever we make something at home,” she says, “I always put in a secret ingredient and have everybody try and guess what it is.”
It’s a lesson she learned from her father, who grew up playing the same mealtime game with his parents. A public relations man with a passion for cooking and baking, Chad helped Elayna tie on an apron two years ago when she showed an interest in doing more than measuring and stirring.
“She really took to cooking,” he says, “so when her mom told her about the contest, she couldn’t wait to enter. We decided to make a video in our diner, working together as a team.”
Dressed in a pink poodle skirt and satin shirt, Elayna is shown taking her family’s order for a healthy meal at Daddy-O’s and turning it in over the chrome counter to her dad, who rings a bell and hollers “Order up!” when the “birds in a nest” and “little trees” are ready.
“I checked the mailbox every day, hoping we would win,” says Elayna, “and then, on the last day of school, my parents took me to McDonald’s. I thought it was just for lunch, but there was a big surprise party waiting for me.”
Elayna’s school teacher and principal were there, along with officials from McDonald’s, who presented her with tickets to London and a one-week stay at the elegant Lancaster Hotel near Hyde Park.
“We’re also going to Paris for a few days,” says Elayna, who is curious to sample both French and English versions of her favorite mac ‘n cheese. “I like to add a little ground mustard to my macaroni and cheese,” she says, “and I’ve even put in cauliflower and avocado before as a secret ingredient.”
She enjoys trying new dishes out on her brothers (James, 6, and Clark, 2), but isn’t sure that she wants to wear a chef’s hat full-time when she grows up.
“Cooking is fun, but it’s also a lot of work,” says Elayna. “I’m thinking of becoming a veterinarian or a famous gymnast instead.”
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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.