Sienna Mazone’s love affair with food began long before an aunt in Colorado sent her information about Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and encouraged her to enter the nationwide recipe contest.

Mazone, a 12-year-old from Dresden, prepares one or two meals a day for her family, and does most of the household grocery shopping. Her family has a big vegetable garden (which Sienna says has turned her into “a professional weeder”), so she has learned to make bean-lentil loaf topped with tomato sauce and, as her mother Kimberly put it, “a mean pot pie.”

She has her own herb garden, and last year made $557 at the Common Ground Fair selling her homemade elderberry syrup.

“I love, love, love, love to bake,” Sienna said. “I especially enjoy making healthy desserts using natural sweeteners, such as local honey or Maine maple syrup. For favorite dishes? I enjoy making pasta. My dad’s family is Italian, and some of our best times in the kitchen include making pasta.”

It’s no wonder her family considered her a natural for the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, part of the Let’s Move! campaign to battle childhood obesity. The contest asks kids ages 8 to 12 to create an original lunchtime recipe that is “healthy, affordable and delicious” and meets federal nutritional guidelines. Winners from each state and territory are flown to Washington, D.C., along with a parent or guardian, to experience a Kids’ State Dinner – actually, a lunch – at the White House.

Sienna submitted a recipe last year and became a semi-finalist. This year, her recipe for Mexican Haystacks did the trick, and she became Maine’s representative at the third annual dinner.

Last Friday, a few hours after the lunch, Sienna was still breathless about the experience, which she called “unreal” and “so awesome.”

“It was so crazy,” she said. “There were reporters and cameras following you everywhere. It was so weird.”

The highlight for Sienna was meeting Michelle Obama and having her photo taken with her. Their first encounter took place in a receiving line in the East Room while a band played; she also got a chance to speak with the first lady during the lunch.

“I had butterflies everywhere,” Sienna said. “And the first lady was absolutely gorgeous. I told her, ‘You are my hero,’ and she told me, ‘The kids are my heroes.’ ”

The kids were treated as well as any foreign dignitary. Their names were announced when they arrived, and butlers served them samples of winning recipes on White House china. (Sienna liked the quinoa-sweet potato boat the best.) They even got a surprise visit from the big guy. President Obama confessed to the kids that, when confronted with a bowl of guacamole and chips, “I lose my mind.”

After the meal, they strolled through the White House garden, where Sienna was interviewed by NPR, three newspapers and two TV stations.

‘KIDS SHOULD BE DOING SOMETHING’

If the reporters were looking for an informed source, that’s what they got in Sienna.

Sienna’s family, all vegetarian, has long been interested in issues of nutrition and health. Her father, Zach, is a family practice resident at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston who occasionally does free presentations on health and wellness at a small wellness center/vegan cafe. Her mother is a part-time elementary teacher (Sienna and her little brother, 8-year-old Lucca, are home-schooled) who is interested in nutrition and fitness.

“When I was teaching full time, I noticed there were so many issues that my students were dealing with healthwise,” Kim Mazone said. “ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) was a huge problem. So many times I would see what the kids would bring for lunches, and I thought there has to be a better way, even on a very basic level of nutrition, exercise. So many issues that we’ve seen are lifestyle-related.”

When Sienna saw her father teaching health education classes, “I thought kids should be doing something, too.”

So in May she gathered a few friends and they went out to knock on doors and hand out fliers, inviting other children to a free Kids2Kids cooking class at the wellness center. Sienna and her friends demonstrated a few breakfast recipes, including oatmeal with raisins, apples and toasted coconut; an entree of bean-lentil loaf with tomato sauce; and nut butter cookies for dessert. It went so well she plans to hold another class in September.

Sienna hones her skills in the kitchen by playing a game with her mother. The family doesn’t watch much television, but Sienna admits she loves “Chopped” on the Food Network. Sometimes she asks her mother to make up a “mystery basket” of three ingredients for her, like they do for the chefs on the show, and she makes dinner from them.

That’s how she came up with her Mexican Haystacks. Parents are allowed to help the children develop their recipes for the contest, but Kim Mazone wanted to limit her own involvement.

“At 12½, with as much experience as she has in the kitchen, I really encouraged her to look at this on her own,” Mazone said. “We did sit and look at the MyPlate guidelines put out by the government and talk about that.”

But Mazone did fulfill her daughter’s request to pick out three ingredients for her to work with, “Chopped”-style; she chose avocado, sweet potato and a Fresno chile pepper.

“The end product,” Sienna said, transforming from preteen into TV chef mode, “was a colorful layered dish that included refried beans on the bottom for protein; a layer of baked, mashed sweet potatoes with cumin and lime; homemade salsa with cherry tomatoes, the chile pepper, onions, fresh cilantro, lime; and sometimes I use a mango, which I think totally think puts everything together.”

For dipping, she baked whole grain tortillas, cut in strips, until they were crisp, and placed them around the dish.

Sienna said she was “inspired to consider color, flavor and texture” by an exhibit she saw at the Boston Museum of Science that focused on world-famous Spanish chef Ferran Adria.

“At 22, he started out as a line cook at the El Bulli Restaurant,” Sienna explained. “In only 18 months he was the head chef. He was amazing in the way that he planned out his dishes. Sometimes he even drew out pictures or made models of his dishes before he prepared them. He had food down to a science. Maybe I should write and tell him about my recipe.”

SHARING IDEAS WITH SEN. KING

As excited as Sienna was to meet Michelle Obama, she had other items on her agenda for her Washington, D.C., trip.

Before the state dinner, she stopped by Sen. Angus King’s office to talk to him about ways parents and kids can encourage Maine to take the lead and build on Obama’s anti-obesity program. He was busier than expected when she got there, but that’s all right: She handed him a letter filled with her ideas about things kids can do to be healthier.

“He was very grateful,” Sienna said. “He said he would read it when he had time.”

She also paid a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to see Julia Child’s kitchen.

“It was absolutely amazing, and very, very tall,” she said. “My goodness. It was almost up to my shoulders, the kitchen counter. Oh, it was so wild.”

On Saturday, she took a culinary tour of Mount Vernon in northern Virginia, learning about how food was prepared and served when George and Martha Washington lived there.

Consider it all good training for the future. Sienna is still a bit too young to dive deeply into the kind of food politics that swirl around her hero, Michelle Obama. But she envisions herself, in two or three decades, working on the front lines of the battle against childhood obesity.

“When I was younger I always wanted to be a veterinarian, because I’ve also always loved animals,” Sienna said. “And right now I want to be either a chef or a pediatrician.”

MEXICAN HAYSTACKS

Serves 6

6 whole-grain flour tortillas

1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced thin

1 red Fresno chile pepper, seeded and chopped

½ red onion, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Juice of 1 lemon or lime (about 1/4 cup)

1½ teaspoons salt

1 avocado, mashed

2½ teaspoons ground cumin

1 large sweet potato, baked, peeled and mashed

1 (15-ounce) can vegetarian refried beans

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut the flour tortillas in strips and place them on a baking sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the strips are crispy and slightly brown.

To make the salsa: In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, chile pepper, onion, cilantro, 2 tablespoons of lemon or lime juice, and 1 teaspoon of salt.

In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon (or lime) juice and the avocado with ½ teaspoon of cumin and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, add the remaining 2 teaspoons cumin to the mashed sweet potato. Warm the sweet potato and the beans in the microwave in 2 separate bowls for 1 minute.

To make the haystack: Either make 1 big haystack to serve at a party, by placing the refried beans on a plate, topping with sweet potato, salsa, and avocado, in that order. Place the baked tortilla strips around the haystack to use for dipping. Or plate by arranging a few tablespoons of each component into individual haystacks on individual plates.