Michelle Obama on Parenting With Self-Compassion During the Pandemic: 'My Routine Helps Me Stay Grounded'

The longtime champion of raising healthy eaters is giving parents their next assist with Waffles + Mochi, a food-focused kids’ show on Netflix. And the former first lady also offers advice on how parents can take care of themselves too.

While the world keeps changing, there remains a constant: kids who won't touch their vegetables with a 10-foot fork. Michelle Obama, who championed healthy foods as First Lady, is still on a mission to change picky-eater hearts and minds. Her latest project is Waffles + Mochi, a sort of Muppets-meets-cooking-show kids' series on Netflix from Higher Ground, the production team she and former President Barack Obama founded.

Michelle stars as a supermarket owner alongside the titular puppets, two freezer-aisle foods that dream of learning how to cook. They meet big-name chefs like Samin Nosrat and José Andrés, who teach them how to prepare foods from around the world. A stream of celebrity cameos (Jack Black, Common, Rashida Jones) keeps things entertaining, even for the grown-ups.

We asked about her own mealtime M.O. and what pandemic family life, Obama-style, has been like.

Michelle Obama Waffles and Mochi Show
Any way you can get kids familiar with veggies and fruits is a win, says the former First Lady. Adam Rose/Netflix

Waffles + Mochi is all about expanding kids' palates as well as their worldview. We'd love to hear why you wanted to make this show.

The work I did for children's health as First Lady wasn't an act. And while I was working on my Let's Move! campaign, I learned how important it is to meet kids where they are and get them excited about trying new, nutritious foods. For me, Waffles + Mochi is an application of that lesson. It's not a lecture. It's not finger wagging. It's genuinely funny. It takes us on adventures, from a potato farm in Peru to a kimchi festival in South Korea. And I think it will help parents because, as we all know, putting healthy meals on the table is one thing, but getting your kids to eat them is another thing entirely.

What was your strategy to get your own daughters to try new foods?

I wish I had easy answers, but I think the biggest thing was to keep introducing different flavors and ingredients into the mix. It sometimes took my girls 10 or more times to embrace a new food, but eventually we got there.

What is a typical Obama family weeknight dinner?

When Sasha and Malia were little, we were a big chicken-and-broccoli family. It was easy to cook and I knew the girls liked it, so it became my go-to on busy weeknights.

Spring is a great season for most people to start a vegetable garden. What's your advice on getting into it—especially with kids?

Just jump in and get your hands dirty. I know that not every family has easy access to a lot of fertile land, but I'd encourage trying out raised beds and pots. You can grow wonderful things on a balcony. Any way you can get kids familiar with veggies and fruits is a win in my book. That's a big part of the reason why we're raising money through the Partnership for a Healthier America to provide more than one million meals to families in need. Anyone who is able can donate at wafflesandmochi.org.

Michelle Obama Waffles and Mochi Portrait
Miller Mobley/Netflix

What has it been like to be home with your college-age kids for months?

We've had it a lot easier than a lot of folks out there on the front lines saving lives and doing all those essential jobs. For Barack and me, while life is certainly different, we've been fortunate to spend so much time with each other and with the girls. One thing I've come to cherish are long, spontaneous conversations. Whether we're talking about the Black Lives Matter movement or a new Netflix show, I'm always learning something new from them.

You've shared that you experienced a low-grade depression during the pandemic. So many moms have been in that boat. How have you coped?

It's been tough, I'm not going to lie. But it's not just the pandemic—we were all shaken by the murder of George Floyd, and then the overdue reckoning with racism in this country. Just a few months later, it was the threat to our democracy from inside our own government and the violence of the riots at the Capitol. There's just so much work to do. And the reality is there's no one-size-fits-all solution, but for me, when it comes to self-care, I've found keeping up with my routine helps me stay grounded. That means getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising—the basics. And sometimes that means being okay with not doing anything "right" and practicing self-compassion. We can all offer a little more grace, to ourselves and to others, right now.

How do you raise kids so they know that their voices and opinions matter and that they can effect change?

My mother, Marian Robinson, could really write the book on this. Ever since my brother and I were little, she took our questions and thoughts about the world seriously. Never sugarcoating her responses, always doing more listening than lecturing. That did wonders for me when it came time to use my own voice out in the world. Raising my own daughters, I've always tried to follow her example.

What's one piece of advice for today's parents?

Think of your kids as little people in training. The boundaries, rules, guidelines, and discipline you set and teach them to live by when they are young will be the foundation that carries them throughout their lives. Whether we are treating others with empathy or just getting to work on time, we are preparing them to leave the nest and be independent, responsible human beings on this earth.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2021 issue as "Catching Up With Michelle Obama." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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