rachael ray newscom 325 'Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook Off': Michelle Obama gives Ray and Fieri an assistGiven her newest job, Rachael Ray freely admits she’s now kidding around.

The popular food show and talk show personality squares off again against Guy Fieri — her friendly rival on “Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off,” which returns this winter — as each mentors a team of four youngsters when Food Network debuts “Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off” Sunday, Sept. 8.

With first lady Michelle Obama helping to set up the premise in the premiere, each episode involves a specific theme and a guest judge. Television veterans Jennie Garth (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) and Marion Ross (“Happy Days”) are among those participants; the ultimate prize will be a Web series of the winner’s own on FoodNetwork.com.

“For years, I’ve asked Food Network to do more kids programming,” Ray tells Zap2it. “I wanted to be more involved in getting kids into the kitchen, especially with our efforts at [the nonprofit organization] Yum-O! So much of fighting childhood obesity is about making them responsible for their own food.

“One of the young ladies I had the pleasure of mentoring made a meal for the first lady,” adds Ray, “and her whole thing is farm-to-table. Her father had Type 2 diabetes, and she started cooking more healthfully to try and help her dad with his illness … and he doesn’t have Type 2 diabetes anymore. Her mission is to get other kids to eat more vegetables.”

Ray is proud that each of the youths on her “Kids Cook-Off” team has a meaningful personal story. “These kids are inspirations not only to other kids but to adults,” Ray reasons. “I think this show will produce not only great chefs, but I think some of them will be really important. They’re really remarkable.”

Gordon Ramsay is another celebrity chef paying attention to younger cooks, since his Fox series “MasterChef Junior” premieres Sept. 27.

“I’m thrilled that Gordon is doing the same sort of programming,” Ray says. “I’m curious to see what their take is. We have really intense mentoring sessions that go on for hours and hours, and these kids are hands-on, executing amazing recipes.”

There’s little doubt of the effect of “Kids’ Cook-Off” on Ray, who likes its theme that “food can be a conduit not only to a more healthful life but to each other. This is the most important work I have ever done in television when it comes to the message of what food is.”

Posted by:Jay Bobbin