President Barack Obama gives a young guest a hug as he makes an unannounced appearance as first lady Michelle Obama hosts the 2015 winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge for the Kids' State Dinner in the East Room at the White House, Friday, July 10, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON | It was smaller than the average White House state dinner but still had many of the trappings: seating in the East Room, meals on fine china, appearances by the president and first lady. But student winners of a nationwide recipe contest were on the VIP guest list, not celebrities and elected officials.

Dressed in the equivalent of their Sunday best instead of tuxedos and shimmering gowns, the 55 winners, each accompanied by an adult, were invited to Michelle Obama’s annual “Kids’ State Dinner.” Nearly 1,000 8- to 12-year-olds entered the contest, which is part of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity initiative. One winner was selected from each state, four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

Tables were draped with checkered cloths and set with radish topiaries and triangular-shaped arrangements of cherry tomatoes, yellow grape tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.

The menu featured several of the winning lunchtime recipes, including the winner from California: a taco served with Mic-Kale Obama Slaw and Barack-amole (rhymes with guacamole).

Mrs. Obama said the students “blew the judges away” with their talent and creativity by using all types and colors of fruits and vegetables in their recipes, even incorporating flax seed, cumin and yellow miso paste.

She said she hopes the kids will “pay it forward” by becoming healthy-eating activists back home.

“A lot of kids don’t understand that food is fuel in a very fundamental way,” the first lady said, standing in front of an arrangement of yellow bell peppers shaped into a hand with a thumb and fingers. “And sometimes they don’t listen to grown-ups, and they don’t listen to the first lady. But many of them will listen to you because you’re living proof of that reality.”

“So I want you to kind of think about how you can move this issue forward in your communities,” Mrs. Obama said. “What more can you do when you get back home to continue this conversation and to engage more young people in the work that you all do? That’s the only thing that I ask of you.”

President Barack Obama reinforced the message during a surprise appearance.

“You guys are setting a great example for all your friends in school and in the neighborhoods, and we’re really proud of you for that,” he said.

The students were also treated to a performance by the cast of Disney’s Tony Award-winning hit musical “Aladdin,” and a tour of the first lady’s vegetable garden on the South Lawn.

Dillon Andrews, 12, of Laramie, Wyoming, said he and his mom brainstormed a few recipes and “we just took the one that was the best” — Indian tacos.

On being at the White House, he said, “This is amazing.”

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