CRANFORD, NJ – Hillside Avenue School third-grader Gianna Malecki possesses a contagious, genuine exuberance and you can’t help but smile when you see they joy cooking brings to her face.

Malecki has taken that love of cooking and earned a seat at the annual Kids’ State Dinner, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, after winning the First Lady’s “Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.”

More than 1,200 entries were received from the 50 states, the five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. It was Malecki’s Salmon Paradise recipe with salad that caught the attention of the White House kitchen staff. After a series of elimination rounds, Malecki was chosen to be New Jersey’s representative at the dinner.

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It all began with a science lesson on nutrition, third-grade teacher Lori Talbot considers herself “passionate about nutrition” and encouraged her students to enter the challenge. A part of the contest, the “MyPlate, MyState” initiative, participants were encouraged to use ingredients grown in their home state.

To bring this point home, Talbot brought Justine Gray in from Dryer’s Farms to speak to the class about all that is grown locally here in New Jersey and help promote the contest.  “Justine got the class all jazzed-up about local produce, the class adore her and she is equally passionate about the virtues of healthy locally sourced eating,” said Talbot.

Gray instantly captured Malecki’s attention and the eager third-grader was all in, she went home and began to create a recipe. With the help of her mom, Lisa, her first thought was a sushi recipe. After several different attempts that didn’t quite go according to plan, Malecki had to change her direction.

The creative chef then decided to put a healthier spin on her mom’s salmon cakes. She added more vegetables, grains and she even whipped-up a pickle sauce with yogurt, in lieu of her mom’s traditional tartar sauce.

“She’s a young little ambassador teaching our community about healthy eating,” said Talbot.  As a token of all of her hard work, Talbot presented Malecki with a monogrammed apron and a copy of Michelle Obama’s cookbook “American Grown”.

Talbot asked Dryer’s Farms to highlight Malecki’s recipe in their CSA boxes. Dryer’s offered the young chef the opportunity to create a recipe using ingredients from the current CSA box and she could have a tasting at the farm. So she worked up a recipe for healthy zucchini cakes and that recipe was included in the box.

The much anticipated news came from Washington D.C. this past week, so mom Lisa decided to bring the good news to Gianna and Talbot at school. Mrs. Malecki said they were smiling and excited, “Gianna was surprised, even a little delayed in her reaction, ‘Wait I won?’ and she told me she thought she might cry.”

“Oh my gosh, how awesome is this, I can’t believe this happened, wait how did this happen?” said the overjoyed Malecki with a giggle.

Her culinary skills may be beyond her years, but she is still a little girl and when asked if she knew what she would wear to the dinner, Malecki said, “Either a blue and silver dress or a white and cream dress, I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet.”

The curious eight-year-old has some questions for Mrs. Obama too, “I want to ask her what is it like to live in the White House and I want to know if there is a movie theater and a bowling alley in the house.”

Excited about attending the dinner, what she is most looking forward to, is a chance to take some herbs from the garden namely mint and basil home with her, “I want to make some basil chips, I’ll just put them on a cookie sheet, drizzle some olive oil on them, with some salt and pepper and bake.” The young chef just might get her opportunity, as part of the day, the winners will get a tour of the White House Kitchen Garden.

Malecki practices what she preaches, her mom Lisa said, “She’s a great eater.” Some of her favorite foods are sushi, shrimp and brownies.

Cooking seems to be a family trait; Malecki loves to cook with her mom and when she is not trying to convince her mom to let her do it by herself, she often shares the kitchen with her brother Tyler. “We love making monkey bread, French toast, but my favorite is crepes with strawberries and chocolate syrup,” said Malecki.

In true sibling form, Malecki is quick to point out that her brother says he doesn’t really “like” her food, “But he always eats all of it.”

The busy mini-chef’s favorite activities are not limited to the kitchen; she plays soccer, participates in gymnastics, is a member of the Girls Scouts, loves to play video games and enjoys watching her favorite show, Chopped Junior. In school, her favorite subjects are art, math and reading.

The Kids’ State Dinner will take place on July 14. The winners along with a parent or guardian will attend the lunch, which will feature some of the winning recipes. The junior chef will join the 55 winners representing the other 49 U.S. states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

For the entire list of winners and more information on the challenge visit:


Malecki’s entry read: Gianna's Salmon Paradise
 I've always loved Salmon. At dinner one night, my mom made Salmon cakes with left over Salmon. They were crispy and yummy. After I met with a worker from my town's farm and learned all about New Jersey state fruits and vegetables, I decided to make my own recipe but with healthier foods from my community. I used many vegetables which made it taste healthier. It was a pleasure to make it with my mom. Many of my fruits and vegetables in my recipe are from this state, and some were even from my own garden. I substituted frying the cakes with baking as a healthier choice. The pickle sauce is like my mom's tartar sauce but healthier with yogurt. I included a salad with the Salmon cakes because we always eat salad with our meals and it gave the dish color and freshness to go well with the Salmon cake. It tastes great now with all the healthy changes and I love it even more!