Argonaut chef Jeremy Cooke prepares couscous tofu at the Northeast Washington restaurant. He was inspired to start cooking by his grandmother. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

When you think about food, what do you think about? The peanut butter and jelly sandwich in your lunchbox? The broccoli that your parents make you eat at dinner? The potato chips that you crave after a long day at school?

But what about thinking about food as a way to express yourself, a way to experiment with flavors and a way to explore your own palate? (That’s your taste buds.)

“Inspiration is where everything comes from,” says Jeremy Cooke, the chef at the Argonaut restaurant in Washington, where the kids menu is divided into three categories: milder flavors, medium flavors and stronger flavors. Cooke (what a perfect name for him!) has been cooking since he was 5 years old, experimenting and making mistakes in the kitchen.

For the second year in a row, first lady Michelle Obama and food Web site are challenging kids ages 8 to 12 to create their own healthful recipes for lunch. Judges will choose one winner from every state, the U.S. territories, Puerto Rico and Washington. Those winners will be invited to a kids state dinner at the White House to eat some of the winning dishes with the first lady. (State dinners are fancy dinners.) Last year, more than 1,200 kids entered the contest. And just like last year, the judges will be looking for good, original (that means created by you) recipes. KidsPost asked Cooke for advice on how to come up with one.

Start with a key ingredient

“Start out with the things you like,” Cooke says about creating a recipe. “If you like strawberries, start with strawberries. If you like salad, start with salad.” Or, another way to find inspiration: Just look around the kitchen. “You can always open the refrigerator and find something to make,” Cooke says.

Winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge earn an opportunity to be part of a kids’ “State Dinner” at the White House with first lady Michelle Obama. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A very important part of the contest is making sure the recipes are healthful, so limiting such things as butter, oil and cream is important. Cooke suggests using items that are fresh, not frozen or out of a can.

“With a can, you never know how much . . . preservatives [things that are added so that the food will last longer] it’s been sitting in,” Cooke says.

Also, limit the salt in your recipe. “You can always add oil, salt and seasoning later if you need to,” he says.

Although portion size is not mentioned in the contest rules, Cooke says that’s important when creating a healthful recipe. Portion size is how much of a dish one person should be encouraged to eat. A lot of scientists worry that many people are eating too much because servings have become too large. Think about how much you’re making. One serving of something — say, fruit or pasta — should fit in the palm of your hand.

Spices are a great way to add flavor without adding fat. Cooke advises you to notice the spices your parents use and then taste a variety of spices. Figure out which ones you like. Cooke recommends that at first you try simple spices, such as crushed red pepper and cumin, his favorite. “As a kid, I hated garlic,” Cooke says. “My grandmother had to make garlic bread without the garlic.”

Find inspiration

Cooke’s grandmother first inspired him to cook. “She was the first cook I knew,” he says. “I used [cooking] as a way to spend time with [her.]” He fondly remembers his grandmother’s homemade Oreo cookie recipe, which he has been trying to make for years. His grandmother was secretive about the ingredients.

As an 8-year-old kid, Cooke remembers making beef goulash, a soup with vegetables and meat, and putting every spice in it that he could find. “It was the worst!” he says, but he learned from the experience. “Everybody makes mistakes cooking,” Cooke says, even famous chefs.

Be an artist

In a restaurant, the way the food looks once it is cooked and ready to be served is called presentation. If you are going to send a photograph of your dish to the judges, Cooke advises putting the food on a big white plate and making sure there’s nothing dripping around the edges. Use a clean cloth to wipe off the edges if you need to. But mostly, Cooke says, have fun. If you want to make a cool happy face on the plate — with peas as the eyes, couscous for the nose and a red sauce for the mouth — do it! Be adventurous and creative!

“It’s just food,” he says. “It’s not the end of the world. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong.”

Moira E. McLaughlin