Monica Braga – founder of Moni’s Healthy Choice in Abu Dhabi – has been a healthy eater since she was a child in Brazil, growing up in a family of 11 on her mother’s home-cooked meals. But it wasn’t until she was about to become a mother, 17 years ago, that she got serious about it.
“I was really thinking, ‘How could I not give my best food to my child?’” she says. “And I really started to understand it. So I started to research how I could give her more nutrients and food that was healthier. I became paranoid about food.”
You may have noticed Braga’s clean-eating brand, Moni’s Healthy Choice, taking over Abu Dhabi supermarkets. There is the takeaway business: Braga’s staff produces more than 1,000 energy balls in 14 flavors every week, as well a range of breakfast puddings, parfaits, bread, cookies, doughnuts (her Velvet Red cake incorporates beets, almonds and coconuts) and other good-for-you snacks. They are all available to order online and in stores across Abu Dhabi, including Souq Planet, Yum, Abela and YogaOne as well as several locations in Dubai. And now she’s opened her first dine-in location, Moni’s Healthy Choice Cafe in Al Bandar.
Braga is on a mission to get people in the UAE thinking about every bite of food they eat. Her food is prepared with simple ingredients – her raisin-oat cookie, for example, is made with gluten-free oats and sweetened with coconut sugar – by a production staff of six working out of a kitchen in Al Bateen.
Braga, who hasn’t eaten red meat since she was a child but cooks it for her children once a week, says many people in the region have got so used to eating packaged foods they don’t even know how bad it is making them feel. She urges taking a gradual approach to a better way.
“Just slowly, change one thing and then you get used it and you can see how you feel, and see what that food does to you,” she explains.
Nutrition and nourishment is such a personal experience and preference that people really need to get back in touch with their own bodies, she notes.
“It doesn’t matter if you go to a nutritionist or a doctor, it’s you, how you feel,” she says. “Sometimes you eat something and you bloat.”
Braga is a big advocate of reading food labels. “If there’s something I don’t understand, I’m not putting it in my body.” She also encourages people to pick up a few healthy recipes to make and incorporate into the family’s meal schedule, with an eye to eating in restaurants less often.
“When you buy stuff, it doesn’t have the same nutrients as when you make it from scratch,” she says. “I never really eat out, I’d rather eat at home and I cook at home all the time. I love knowing what’s in my food.”
The inspiration for her business came after she moved to the capital in 2000, for what was supposed to be a three-month stay with her Lebanese husband.
Eighteen years and three teenagers later and Braga has a thriving business on her hands. In addition to selling to retailers that include Souk Planet, Abela and Yum, she’s just launched her products at Sushi Central. Next, Braga will launch a line of vegan and protein meals featuring salmon and other fish, and possibly a storefront deli space.
It was only six years ago that Braga got started on all this healthy eating business. She was working as an office manager and had just started training at a gym with her husband – something she now does religiously – and needed something quick to grab as a snack.
With no other natural options in stores, she started making her own energy balls and bars, stashing them in her bag.
“People started to say, ‘Why don’t you do this for other people? There’s nothing like that here’,” she says.
Braga had just started making the balls and bars for her friends when the company she was working for closed down.
“I said, ‘That’s it, that’s my chance, I will do it now,’” she recalls thinking. “I want to do what I love the most and that’s cooking.”
From energy balls and bars she has branched out, creating chia-and-oat puddings in different flavors, gluten-free cookies and cupcakes, and bread, which she loves, but can’t eat.
“I started to research quinoa bread,” she says. “I have pictures of the first ones we did. Oh my gosh, they were terrible. It took me a long time, dozens of tries.”
Featured photo: Monica Braga/Ann Marie McQueen