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Meet The Magic Meal: an app to make eating more fun for kids

As a nutritionist, Yara Radwan was naturally keen for her children to embrace a healthy diet. But Mark, 7, and Lyra, 5, had other ideas. “They’ve always been picky eaters from when they were babies,” says Radwan, 37, who is from Syria. “Lyra wouldn’t eat any cooked vegetables and Mark refused to eat any rice, pasta and bread that wasn’t white.”

Radwan was also disturbed to see so many advertisements for unhealthy food using colourful, superhero characters to target children. “I wanted to show my kids how healthy foods can be cool, too,” she says.

So rather than give in to Lyra and Mark’s requests for unhealthy foods, Radwan decided to get creative. She made up a story for them, about three children – Sami, Rasha and Kareem – who get superhero qualities from the healthy foods they eat.

Their powers come into play when the trio gets lost in a forest. “Sami has strong muscles and is able to climb up a tree and rescue their kite, because of the protein in the chicken he eats,” says Radwan. “Rasha eats carrots and broccoli, and when it gets dark, she can still see everything because of the vitamin A. Kareem eats brown pasta, which is full of fibre, and discovers that his energy is super long-lasting – he still feels energetic when the others get tired.”

As well as telling the story, which she dubbed The Magic Meal, to her own children, Radwan’s goal was to publish her tale as a book. But when she moved with her family from the United Kingdom to Abu Dhabi three years ago and pitched the concept to Abu Dhabi’s media company twofour54, they had another suggestion.

“They said: ‘How about we create an app?’ This generation has access to iPhones and iPads everywhere, and they thought we could make the story more interactive and accessible than a book.”

The concept of ordinary people gaining superhuman powers by eating healthy food has been tackled before – Popeye’s muscles would bulge after gobbling up a can of spinach, and Bananaman could save the world after refuelling on a banana. In the children’s book Avocado Baby, by John Burningham, the baby manages to fight off burglars with his avocado-induced strength. But Radwan doesn’t think such a concept has been tackled in app form.

For her, there was just one small snag – she didn’t know anything about app-making. “I just knew that my kids loved playing with different apps. But I didn’t feel daunted, as twofour54 said they’d provide all the support I’d need.” Radwan was helped by a team from the company’s Creative Lab on the initial planning and designing side, and the app was produced in Abu Dhabi by Alpha Apps. “I wanted it to be very colourful, because I know how much children love bright colours,” she says. “It was wonderful watching the idea come to life.”

The resulting interactive story enables children to press on the characters to hear sounds, and they can either read the story as a book or listen to it being narrated.

Emirati children’s author Noura Al Khoori, who is a mother of four kids, ages 11, 9, 7 and 1, came on board to help translate Radwan’s story into Arabic, and to help design the app’s accompanying games.

Each app character stars in a different game that highlights their superpower. “Sami ate the chicken in the story, but now the children have to help him in the supermarket to collect other protein foods – fish, beans, eggs and other meats – and they lose points if they pick up unhealthy foods, like fizzy drinks,” explains Radwan. “When they’ve completed the three stages of the game, Sami gets his superpowers.”

Al Khoori appreciates the fact that the game educates kids as well as entertains. “It’s great that the game teaches food groups – it’s not just a game, it has a purpose,” she says.

The free iOS app The Magic Meal was launched in January and is now a big hit in Radwan’s household. “Mark and Lyra love to play it, and they feel very proud because they know their mum helped to create it,” says Radwan. And it may have had some impact on their eating habits, too. “Mark now tolerates brown pasta when mixed with sauce, and brown bread in his lunchbox. I still can’t persuade Lyra to eat broccoli and carrots, but she is now more accepting of other vegetables.”

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