Dubai yoga and stretch instructor Clare Moukabaa understands the importance of getting her kids to eat their vegetables. She creates the prettiest little lunchboxes for her daughter: tiny slices of sandwiches, bits of cucumber, rolled turkey with cheese, fresh berries, raisins, pretzels – even the occasional fancy dessert.
“If she doesn’t eat her broccoli for her evening dinner, it goes into her lunchbox, where I know she’ll eat it,” says Moukabaa. “Ayla started nursery at 14 months old, so I started early in making her lunches. I wanted to know exactly what she was eating and how much. I try to add protein, healthy fats, carbs, fruits, and vegetables and processed sugars are only a treat at the weekend.
“I’ve found lunches don’t have to be expensive or hard to make. Kids only know what they’re given, and for me it’s about educating my daughter in the right way. She’s happy eating well.”
When it comes to feeding her daughter, health is a focus for Moukabaa but in global terms, she is outside the norm. Charlotte Evans, a lecturer in health and nutrition at the University of Leeds, studied packed school lunches in the UK in 2006 and again in 2016.
“Less than a fifth of lunch boxes contain any vegetables or salad and the majority contain too many sweet and savory snacks,” she says. “Sweetened drinks make it into 46 percent of lunch boxes.”
In the UAE, there are guidelines for schools to follow when it comes to healthy eating, but these vary according to whether the school is public or private. And what children actually eat can be appalling, as Nura Arabi, a physical education teacher, influencer and health promotion specialist in Abu Dhabi showed when she shared pictures of some recent student lunches on her Instagram stories.
“What I saw was so scary,” she says.
“Providing healthy foods requires commitment and perseverance and is more time-consuming,” says Evans. “We are still a long way from where we want to be.”
Enter White + The Bear
Within the region, where families tend to be resource-rich and time poor, a whole range of companies have popped up offering different ways for getting kids to eat their vegetables. These vary from meal delivery services to a sit-down kid-focused restaurant with cooking classes.
Leading the way is White + The Bear, a children’s restaurant co-created by the celebrity chef and children’s food expert, Annabel Karmel. The bright, white restaurant with minimal decor is located in Jumeirah 2 and offers menu items including pancakes paired with sliced banana and berries and hamburgers with hidden carrots and apples. There are cooking classes and special themed promotions, too. A recent offer included applesauce with every Deliveroo purchase to celebrate the UAE sending an astronaut into space.
“Living in Dubai automatically means that you live a busy lifestyle,” White + the Bear head chef, Andrew Matthews, tells livehealthy.ae. “Everything is fast-paced, which automatically leaves less time for regular cooking at home. When it comes to providing the right nutritious meal for children, it can be a challenge.”
It’s harder for parents who don’t know what’s in food, which additives are present, and so forth. That’s why White + The Bear have focused on natural and organic ingredients.
Sometimes, it’s not just a learning process for the kids, it’s an education for the parents, says Matthews.
“A common mistake I see is that parents sometimes think their child won’t like a certain meal because they are too fussy and picky. Parents might opt for a more mainstream ‘kids meal’ that is simpler than something with more vegetables and ingredients.”
It’s the kind of varied menu approach Hadil Alkhatib took when she opened her Al Wasl Road restaurant The Roost Rotisserie last year. She was determined that the children’s menu would feature smaller versions of the main dishes, but easier on the spice. That included a quarter-chicken meal, vegetarian quesadilla and a variety of healthy side dishes. It was the kind of food her young daughter was eating and she wanted other children to have it too.
By offering a range of dishes, many of them healthy, some of them unusual, it puts kids into the driver’s seat while letting them choose between equally nutritious options.
For extra guidance, White + The Bear hosts one-off events with visiting culinary experts, like lunchbox stuffing workshops for kids and parents.
“Our aim here is to encourage experimentation so that parents understand children are happy to eat healthy food, as long as it is also a bit of fun,” says Matthews.
Getting kids to eat their vegetables at home and school
In addition to restaurants, a whole range of kid-focused meal delivery services have emerged in the UAE.
One of these is Yum in the Box, a company that delivers healthy meals to kids in a Happy Meal-esque container with games on the side. Food includes things like Alfredo broccoli, chicken spinach ricotta bake, or three-cheese lasagna. They also cater parties.
“We decided to start the company because of the huge gap in the market, and because the rise in obesity in the UAE,” says Yum in the Box founder, Sara Ghosn.
Yum in the Box is part of a trend in Dubai: there’s Petit Gourmet, who serve up lunch boxes with additive-free, often organic snacks, main meals and desserts; Chubby Cheeks, a baby and toddler company that creates purees without any weird additives; Pinch Gourmet, who serve up hearty gourmet food for kids; and Yum by Mum, a UAE company that dishes up weekly to monthly meal plans for everyone from toddlers to children aged three and above.
Pinch Gourmet launched in 2014 with gourmet comfort food designed for the home, then expanded into nursery catering and children’s birthday parties.
“Our menus are fun, casual and chic at the same time,” says Elias Kandalaft, head chef at Pinch Gourmet. “We noticed that sometimes it’s just about how you present healthy food that encourages kids to try it.”
As part of that effort, Pinch Gourmet adds dips to their vegetables, fun shapes to sandwiches and sneaks veggies into sauces.
Yet Pinch Gourmet’s focus isn’t just on the kids; they also cater for parents because, as Kandalaft explains, “Parents need to ensure they are a good example by trying new things in front of their little ones and encouraging them to do the same.”
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Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist and globally recognized influencer and leader in the body acceptance movement.