Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, June 30, 2013 | 2 a.m.
• 1 cup mixed berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries)
• 1 package Yoplait Light Boston Creme Pie yogurt
• 1/4 cup milk
First, pour berries into blender. Add yogurt and milk. Blend until creamy. Serve.
-- Isabella Gross
Isabella Gross was in a hospital bed when her mom told her she would be having dinner with first lady Michelle Obama.
Isabella, an 11-year-old Henderson girl, found out she is Nevada’s winner in the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, which invited children to concoct and submit creative, balanced recipes. The nationwide contest was cooked up by the first lady and Epicurious, a recipe website that promotes healthy eating.
Judges chose an entry from each state, including Gross' Chex Chicken and Bellaberry Smoothie. As a winner, Gross was invited to attend a dinner hosted by the first lady on July 9 at the White House.
Of course the budding chef wanted to tell her friends about the victory, but she was about to undergo a biopsy.
"I really, really wanted to tell my best friend, but I didn't have the time to because the doctor was coming toward us, so I decided to just tell the doctor and wait until after to tell all my friends," Isabella said. "He was really excited for me."
On the same day Isabella learned she had won with her gluten-free recipe, the biopsy confirmed she had celiac disease, an intolerance to gluten.
Her mother, Tricia Gross, said blood tests two months ago first indicated her daughter was gluten intolerant.
"She'd been sick for two months. She was really sick to the point where we had to pull her out of school," said her mother. "The fatigue, the headaches, the dizziness … it was just daily. She was drained. We took the gluten out of her diet, and within four days she was better."
The conditions prompted the young chef to create a gluten-free dish with chicken coated in Honey Nut Chex and a chili and lime-flavored potato chip alternative.
She also created a berry smoothie – purple, her favorite color – that she named after herself. The Bellaberry Smoothie creator said she only learned about the contest four days before the May deadline.
"I didn't think I had a good chance against the others because I had such a limited amount of time, and when I found out I won, I was so happy," Isabella said.
Tricia Gross had almost forgotten about the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.
"They said they would announce it in early June and it was the 15th. So I'm thinking, 'Oh, I guess we didn't win. She hasn't asked about it. It's OK. We'll just forget about it,'" said Tricia Gross, who received a congratulatory email on June 17. "I turned my phone to her so she could read the email, and her eyes just lit up."
The proud mom praised the contest for promoting a healthy, balanced eating regimen.
"I think it's pretty cool that Epicurious is putting this on and raising awareness. It raises awareness for kids to start eating healthy when they're young," she said. "For Michelle Obama to be putting on something like this to show support for the kids is so important. It really is."
Tricia Gross, who sampled her daughter's creative concoction and noted it was surprisingly good, said the triumph was a positive amid the turmoil. In April 2012, her daughter was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.
"The celiac is challenging with finding gluten-free stuff, but with her diabetes, she lost 20 pounds and spent a week in the hospital. It was a big life-changer," said Tricia Gross.
The mother of four said combating both diseases boils down to healthy eating choices.
"Coming up with the balance in her meals every day is a challenge with the diabetes and the gluten-free on top of it. You've got to get rid of a lot of your carbs. Your pastas and all of that go away until you find the right stuff," Tricia Gross said.
She added the entire family has adopted a gluten-free diet to support her youngest child, and the new eating habits have made the family closer.
"We, as a family, are going to come up with cool meal ideas on Sundays," said Tricia Gross. "We have to be supportive. We don't need that stuff, anyway."
Isabella, who will be attending junior high school in the fall, said her love of cooking stems from her family, which once owned a small catering business.
"I do a lot of cooking with family," she said. "We all come up with different kinds of recipes and we have a lot of family recipes."
Although the family has a gluten-free household, Tricia Gross said she doesn't expect her daughter's friends to have the same dietary restrictions.
"It's tough. It's even harder as a child with sleepovers and summer activities. She's got great friends who are very supportive. But, if at the last minute, she gets invited to go somewhere and I'm at work, what's she going to eat? So we have to have grab-and-go stuff. I don't expect her friends to have a gluten-free house," Tricia Gross said.
Despite the hardships, the family is grateful the situation isn't more dire.
"It's challenging, but it could be a lot worse. We're thankful this is all she has. It's a lifelong thing, but it could have been far worse," said Tricia Gross.
Although diabetes and gluten intolerance will affect isabella's eating patterns for the rest of her life, the 11-year-old won't let it hinder her future plans.
"I want to open a restaurant and either be a chef or an artist or a singer," she said, and added that her restaurant would be a gluten-free establishment.
It was difficult for Isabella to get used to her new diet, but she offered advice for other kids who have celiac disease.
"It gets easier throughout time because you learn how to handle things and how you can work to make it better," she said. "Stay strong. It may seem bad, but there're other things that could be worse. Stay positive. Think positive."