What’s so great about a banana? To a child, a parent’s insistence that they snack on a banana – or munch on an apple, or make do with a handful of almonds – can sound like just another rule to ignore, or unsolicited advice to rebel against. This is especially the case if there’s no context provided as to why, exactly, a banana makes a lot more sense than a sugary dessert or a bag of crisps.
“Kids have an inherent curiosity,” says Badr Ward, founder and chief executive of Lamsa, an Arabic-language app that aims to be at once entertaining and educational, and is geared towards children between the ages of 2 and 8. “They want to know things. Their brains are like sponges, soaking up information. Why just tell them to eat a banana? Why not tell them why they should eat that banana, what it will do to their bodies and how it will make them feel? Or how to tell if a banana is ripe or not, and whether it should be stored in the fridge or on the kitchen counter? And why not do all that in a fun, interactive format that is presented like a game, so it appeals to children and so they retain the information?”
Why not, indeed. Ward and his Lamsa app, which has been downloaded and used by more than 14 million children across the world since its launch in 2013, is using the platform to educate children about healthy eating, nutritious choices, and navigating the kitchen safely and with confidence. And Ward is doing it with the help of a beloved celebrity chef.
Dubbed “queen of the Arabic kitchen”, chef Manal Al Alem is a well-known name in Arab households. She’s the author of a bestselling Arabic-language cookbook, Manal Al-Alem’s Kitchen, and a book on regional dessert recipes, Manal Al-Alem Kitchen for Arabian Sweets. She’s renowned both as a TV chef and YouTube personality, with more than a million subscribers. The Jordanian, who is mainly based in Dubai, also serves as a United Nations ambassador for the World Food Program. And starting September 30, she’ll be part of a new series: the Lamsa Kitchen with Manal Al Alem.
“I’ve always got so much joy out of working with and interacting with children,” says Al Alem. “True happiness for me is when I’m with my grandchildren – I have two here in Dubai and two in the United States – and all four use and love Lamsa. To be able to use the app to reach out to children, and teach them about food and healthy eating in such a fun and creative way, is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.
Through the app, the chef and Ward have partnered with food and distribution company Del Monte, and use its fresh fruit and vegetables in designing custom-made recipes that are easy for children to tackle. These will be shown over 24 episodes, to be launched on the chef’s YouTube channel. The episodes will also correspond with 24 new games that will be uploaded on Lamsa.
“I believe getting an Arab celebrity chef to cook and interact with animated characters like this is a first for the region,” says the app’s founder. Lamsa’s animated mascots, a red-haired little girl, Joory, and her green-haired brother, Adam, are modelled and named after Ward’s own children. Joory and Adam flit around Al Alem on screen, cooking and chatting alongside her in the how-to videos.
Filming the episodes in this mixed-reality format was a challenge for the chef, she admits, despite how comfortable she is cooking in front of the camera. “It was hard doing it, but we managed never to burn a meal.”
The banter in the show involves everything from tips on how to tell if a banana is ripe and what ingredients should be stored in the refrigerator (as opposed to the kitchen cupboard), to how to safely use a vegetable peeler and how to handle raw chicken.
“Children take so much pride in themselves when they get to help in the kitchen or prepare food, even if it’s as simple as slicing a cucumber,” says Al Alem. “This is our chance to show them they are in charge of their food choices. They can rely on themselves and be independent in the kitchen, which will give them confidence and make them understand the value of fresh food over fast food or packaged goods.”
The recipes are hands-on, such as getting children to make Arabian-style meatballs from scratch and then form them into different shapes, or stuffing coloured capsicums with a healthy mixture of rice, vegetables and spices. “I didn’t come up with brand-new recipes; the food is all familiar to children. It’s the food they see on their own tables and can relate to, and mostly from the Arabic kitchen, but simplified,” says Al Alem. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity to teach them about foods and cultures from across the world, so we make a unique sushi out of fruits, or learn how to flip pancakes. It’s a little bit of everything,” she explains.
In one episode, Joory and Adam express their surprise when they come across pink hummus, wondering how it could be – based on an incident with Ward’s children, who asked him about it at a buffet lunch not too long ago.
“In the episode, chef Manal explains exactly how hummus can be pink, and feeds into that curiosity that children have,” the founder explains. The aim, he adds, is to present cooking and food preparation as a fun game for children, in order to instil healthy eating habits and nutritional awareness early on.
The hook is pretty straightforward, agree both Ward and Al Alem: preparing a meal and sitting down to eat it is the best way to bring a family together. “Which is why I always say, the happiness of a household starts in the home’s kitchen,” the chef concludes.
The first episode out of 24 will be available on the Chef Manal Al Alem YouTube page on September 30, and on the same day, the episode and a corresponding game will be uploaded on the Lamsa app. Episodes and games will continue to be uploaded regularly until there are 24 of each in total.