WASHINGTON — The White House has fully embraced one of eating's hottest trends — seasonal cooking with ingredients grown at home.
Presidential chef Cristeta Comerford credits the change in the food coming from the White House's kitchen to Michelle Obama's decision in 2009 to start a garden on the South Lawn as part of her Let's Move campaign to encourage kids to eat healthier.
Comerford acknowledges the White House menus now are a lot different from those in the mid-1990s, when she first started working there during the Clinton administration. President George W. Bush appointed her executive chef during his second term, and the Obamas kept her on when they arrived.
"The White House kitchen has really evolved tremendously in a positive way, having a garden out there," Comerford said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It really has focused me on reworking my menu based on seasonality."
Comerford says the garden has also inspired her in her own home, where she planted a plot and she and her 10-year-old daughter, Danielle, cook together. Comerford herself lost 15 pounds last year.
Cooking with kids is the subject of a new Prevention Magazine initiative that encourages parents to bring kids into the kitchen. Michelle Obama taped a message for the magazine's website endorsing the effort and Comerford shared a vegetable pizza recipe as an example of a fun meal to cook with children.
Comerford says her daughter is fascinated by the home garden, where she can clip her own herbs in the summer instead of going to the grocery store.
"She'll say, 'Mom, I don't think you have enough broccoli on your plate,'" Comerford said.
The White House's new focus on gardening and seasonal cooking has been especially pronounced during the last couple of winters, when most people go to the grocery store and choose from imported vegetables from warmer climates.
The South Lawn garden has hoop houses — open, plastic, dome-like structures — that capture the sun and act like greenhouses during the colder months. Comerford said her staff is able to serve "good hearty spinaches," collard greens, kale and other vegetables fresh during the winter.
The availability of so many seasonal vegetables out back has shifted the focus of many White House meals.
"It's really garden-driven more than anything," she said. "The vegetable doesn't just become a companion anymore. The protein is a star, but the vegetable is the star as well."
The White House kitchen also benefits from the detailed information it is required for security reasons to get from its purveyors, such as where the food was farmed and how it was grown.
Despite the healthy focus, the chef defends Michelle Obama against critics who pounce when she's seen eating a burger or french fries. Mrs. Obama has said she loves fries and tells audiences that healthy eating doesn't always have to mean deprivation.
"I try to be healthy for the whole week, but there's nothing wrong to treating myself to a nice juicy burger," Comerford says of her own diet.
The Let's Move campaign — which has pushed for better school lunches, more access to healthy foods and more physical activity — will celebrate its second anniversary this month, and the first lady is on a two-day swing through California to promote her initiative as well as help Democrats raise money for the upcoming elections.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama visited NBC's "Tonight Show." She cajoled Jay Leno into breaking his long-held aversion for all-things-healthy in his diet, feeding the host apples, sweet potato fries and a pizza made with eggplant, green peppers and zucchini.
Prevention Magazine is featuring Mrs. Obama on its March cover. In an interview with the magazine, the first lady says her daughter Sasha recently discovered tomatoes — a food she always said she didn't like — after taking a cooking class at school.
But that doesn't mean she'll be taking advantage of the plump red ones grown in her own backyard, the first lady said.
"She insisted that the tomatoes she had at school were different from the ones we have at home," Mrs. Obama told the magazine. "But the real difference is that she had put time into making that sandwich, so she was invested in it."
Prevention Magazine's "Kids Get Cooking" project: http://www.prevention.com/cook-with-kids
Let's Move campaign: http://www.letsmove.gov
Find Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/mcjalonick