Anne Burrell Joins the Great American School Lunch Challenge

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Host Anne Burrell behind the line in the kitchen of Zengo as seen on Food Network's Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell, Season 2.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2012, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2012, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

No stranger to friendly food competition, Anne Burrell is a seasoned restaurant chef known for her no-nonsense mentorship of a team of recruits on Worst Cooks in America and eager executive-chef hopefuls on Chef Wanted. In Washington, D.C. yesterday, she donned her chef's hat for a worthy cause, taking the stage next to Iron Chef Jose Garces for a good-natured cook-off in the Great American School Lunch Challenge. This contest, in concert with the Partnership for a Healthier America, celebrates the work of Let's Move!, an effort headed by First Lady Michelle Obama to reduce the rates of childhood obesity in the United States through a multi-layered plan which includes access to healthy school lunches. It was up to chefs Anne and Jose to work within the confines of a limited budget and dietary restrictions to turn out deliciously wholesome dishes that were not only nutritionally sound but also appealing to kids and their perhaps picky palates.

Proud of the way the Challenge "shines a light on the school lunch program … in a fun and creative way," Anne told us that the event "puts the task to me as a chef to say, 'Alright, show us your creativity and what you can do with these nutritional guidelines to feed the kids in 30 minutes. Make it delicious, make it fast and make it fun.'"

To her, the cook-off was a way to consider "what the kids would want for lunch," so in preparation, Anne explored the ingredients most commonly used in school cafeterias and built her dish around them. She realized that, given their affordability and accessibility, "canned foods are a must." It was important to her to balance those prepared foods with fresh picks, which is how she ended up offering burrito-like wraps filled with shredded roasted chicken thighs and vegetable-packed chili. "I tried to match them with whole grains and the least amount of processed food that I could."

To moms and dads who are struggling to pack their kids good-for-you lunches, Anne recommends preparing meals that are three things: delicious, colorful and easy to eat. Visually enticing food with kid-approved flavors and a design shaped for little hands is the key to guaranteeing that children will not only tolerate nutritious lunches but look forward to them as well. She also recommends letting kids have a hand in meal prep so that they become enthusiastic about what they'll be eating from the very beginning. "Get kids involved in making their own lunches, because then they won't be like, 'Well, my mom packed me this, and I didn't like it,'" she explained. "Get kids invested in and excited about food and cooking."

While some healthful ingredients can be higher in cost, Anne noted that there are indeed plenty of nutritious staples to shop for that won't break the bank. Easy-to-make pasta, beans and eggs are go-tos for her, given their versatility and manageable price tags.

Want to check out Food Network's top healthy recipes as organized by MyPlate guidelines? Check out the MyPlate Pinterest boards to find easy recipes for chicken, slow-cooker favorites, pasta, vegetarian options, side dishes and more, then read more about Food Network's venture with Partnership for a Healthier America and hear from First Lady Michelle Obama.

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