Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
There are days when I love my job, and days when I really, really love it. Tuesday was in the “really, really love” category. I and five other online reporters knew we were about to have a rare roundtable discussion with First Lady Michelle Obama about her new book, American Grown, but I didn’t realize our conversation would actually take place on a picnic table right near the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. What a hoot! So there we sat, chatting with the first lady about her first-ever book, the president and her girls, all the while hoping the Washington, D.C. skies, which would periodically switch from sunny to grey, would hold. They did!
Most of our conversation centered on the first lady’s nearly 300-page new book, detailing the creation of her kitchen garden, the first one at the White House since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Obama wanted to make clear, to the panel of mostly working moms, that her book was in no way sending a message that moms who don't have gardens are not doing enough for their kids. “I don’t want this book or anything we’re doing around nutrition to be one more worrisome thing for a mother to think that, 'If I’m not doing this, then I’m not being a good mother,' which is why we talk about different types of gardens,” said Mrs. Obama.
Everything from community gardens to growing tomatoes in a backyard to taking kids to farmers markets can teach kids how to live healthier lives, she said. “We’re trying to throw a bunch of different ideas out there just so that people – if they try and fall, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a failure, my kids will never have vegetables and now I’m a horrible mother,” she said to laughter. “Because we tend to do that to ourselves.” Oh yes we do! “So don’t do that!” We won't!
“Good Reviews” from the President
Asked if President Obama was just a tiny bit jealous that he is no longer the only published author of the family, Mrs. Obama laughed and said he’s “proud.” “He was very pleased with it, and that’s a good sign because he’s a pretty good writer. So he said it sounded like me, it was very readable, approachable. So I got good reviews from my husband.”
No, the commander-in-chief wasn’t reviewing drafts of the book because the first lady said, with a smile, he’s “kind of busy” “He knew we were writing the book, he knew when we were going through edits and we made changes, but no, no I try to let him focus on national security, the economy, things like that.”
Malia and Sasha: “A Good Quick Focus Group”
The design of the book as a coffee table book was “really inspired” by Malia and Sasha, said the first lady. “Because we have a lot of coffee table books and...they can’t watch a lot of TV, so if we have downtime and we’re sitting in a spot where there are books, Malia – they love to go through these. And it’s usually the pictures that draw them in.”
She said she knew she had a good book on her hands, a book that a kid might pick up and keep reading, after giving it to her girls, who turned out be a “really quick focus group.” “You saw Malia sort of going. ‘Oh, this is nice, mom, it’s a good book.' And then ten minutes later, she still had it, and she was still thumbing through it, and then she started reading it.”
Dinnertime Rituals – “Work Above the Store”
In her book and in interviews, the first lady mentions how their family tries to have dinner together every night at 6:30pm. That was not the case before arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “So coming to the White House really brought us together in ways that we’d never experienced before as a family, because we both work above the store,” she said.
“What we find is that… we really get to catch up with our kids and we get to know what’s going on in their heads in ways that we miss otherwise. I mean, I don’t have the drive in with them in the carpool so I don’t hear those conversations… and dinner is really that time...And Barack and I get to check in with each other in ways that are important, just to make sure that the girls are still sane… and the same as they’ve always been."
Her Daily Diet
Asked about her daily diet, the first lady chuckled and said, “It depends on how tight my dress is at any given point in time, because I definitely do have my lapses of sort of, ‘Whoa, did I eat French fries every day this week?” Hooray, she's just like us!
She said she typically eats five meals a day, which includes a breakfast of stir-fried vegetables, tofu or oatmeal, and a lunch, typically her biggest meal, which might be fish and vegetables. One of her favorite lunches? Veggie pizza on whole wheat bread. One of Malia's least favorite? Snap peas. "We had a lot of peas and snap peas (in the garden), which Malia hates...So she was very happy to see all those vines gone," she chuckled.
“When Mom and Dad Are There”
Like most families, the girls have a “when dad and mom are there” meal and something entirely different when mom and dad are gone. “It’s like, 'Can we have mac and cheese?' But then the mac and cheese is usually whole wheat pasta. We use whole grains for most of it.”
Bagels and Cream Cheese!
The girls, the first lady said, are allowed to have pizza and to have what they want when they go out or are staying with friends. She said she doesn’t want them “counting calories” but just wants them to think about how they should feed themselves – especially when they go to camp this summer. And she’s already thinking about college! “Because I do tell them, when you’re in college, you can’t eat a bagel and cream cheese every day for every meal. We’ve all done it,” she said to laughter. “I know I did it… I don’t know what they’ll do in the world, but all I can do is arm them with the information.”
The Food Nazi
Another revelation? The first lady announced her mother thinks she’s the “food nazi” of the household because of her unwillingness to change up meals if the girls are unhappy with their choices. “I’m like, ‘I remember in your house what was served for dinner was what we had period. There was no discussion. There was no – and there was always a vegetable, and you had to finish your vegetables." She jokes, “Now you’re telling me I’m being mean, I’m doing what you did. She’s like, ‘Oh, you’re right.”
Surprise: Her Grandmother Had a Victory Garden!
Mrs. Obama said she didn't learn until she started writing the book that her grandmother, her mother's mother, tended a victory garden in her neighborhood, and teased her mom for not revealing that information until now. "That was one of those, 'You know I'm building a garden, mom," she said laughing. "That's my mom. It's like, 'Oh yes, we had a victory garden, that's how we got our vegetables.' I was like, 'Well, that's good to know. It's really timely now that I'm 48, first lady -- had to dribble out these facts of my life," she added with a smile.
Never Thought "I Would Produce Something Like This"
It takes a village, as we like to say, and the first lady said the book, like the garden, was a “community affair. “You can see in here where I wanted to make sure that there were a lot of voices in this book because there are a lot of voices in the garden."
She said she has been most surprised by the community stories, including a story about an old industrial warehouse on the South Side of Chicago where community residents are now composting, growing and then selling the produce locally. “And to see some of these kids from the South Side of Chicago stand up proud and tell you about how they learned how to bee keep, and what they know about the compost and – that’s pretty exciting. And it’s almost like – that’s some special magic happening in a building that you would never imagine that all that great stuff is happening. It’s sort of like gardens.”
“As with everything, we want to use (the garden) to shine a light on other good work,” said the first lady. “So people may pick this up to read about this garden, but they’re going to learn about so much more.”
Kelly Wallace, Chief Correspondent of iVillage, was one of five reporters who traveled with the first lady during her Let's Move national tour earlier this year. She also participated in a roundtable with Mrs. Obama on Let's Move and motherhood last year. Follow Kelly on Twitter here (@kellywallacetv).