"You have no idea how much food was thrown off the high chair," says Oz, as Ozlem Erbas Soydaner is known to her friends and clients, with a laugh. The Turkish-German mum of two is explaining, via an animated Zoom call, how she tested the first round of menu items for Sprout, the ready-to-eat venture that delivers meals in glass jars to homes and schools across Dubai, which she co-founded with fellow mumpreneur Katerina Papatryfon.
“Luna spat out such a lot,” says Erbas Soydaner, 41, as she describes her younger daughter’s early trysts with tahini. Finally, her daughter took her first mouthful when she mixed the Middle Eastern sesame staple with dates, and the resulting paste is now a regular item on the Sprout menu.
Sprout claims it is revolutionising food through nutrition science with nutrient-dense and plant-based meals produced from whole foods and aimed at toddlers and older children.
Sprout germinated into a business last spring, after Erbas Soydaner, a biochemist by education and a serious hobby chef, gave a talk on the benefits of unprocessed and unrefined foods at her daughter’s school. When she received several requests to launch a meal delivery service, she teamed up with Papatryfon, a marketing technologist and data analyst, to build and launch the company.
The pair seeded the venture with $20,000 of their own money dripped in gradually over several months until they were ready to apply for business funding. Last November, Savour Ventures, a food business accelerator in Kuwait, invested $100,000 in cash and in-kind services, allowing Sprout to launch in March.
Despite the coronavirus-related restrictions that ensued after its launch, Sprout has a reach of more than 100 customers, 70 per cent of whom are repeat clients. Customers order weekly or monthly meal boxes online, and vacuum-sealed meals are delivered every Sunday. In August, Sprout was one of 22 new small businesses offered retail space in Spinneys, and Papatryfon and Erbas Soydaner hope to take their product across the UAE and further into the region later this year.
Healthy food for children
Sprout's meals are built around the Daily Dozen, an evidence-based nutrition framework created by Dr Michael Greger, the American physician behind the bestselling book How Not to Die, and its sequel How Not to Diet. Erbas Soydaner explains how it works.
“For example, alliums such as onion and garlic lose much of their anti-cancer properties when exposed to heat right after chopping. Still, it can retain this property throughout cooking when allowed to rest for 15 minutes after chopping. So, in all recipes that call for the allium family, we follow this critical control point, and the chopped veggies are given ample resting time before heat exposure. Everything is founded in science, nothing is left to chance or a result of random doing.”
The menu features quirkily named dishes designed for the UAE’s cosmopolitan resident mix. Yani Biryani, a child-friendly take on the subcontinental classic, mixes vegetables with brown jasmine rice, quinoa and aromatic spices, while Easy Peasy Bolognesy, which is served with wholegrain fusilli, uses lentils, veggies and mushrooms to replicate the classic flavours of ragu.
Parents will also find ways to introduce picky eaters to healthier meals: Sprout’s Mac Ain’t Cheese uses wholegrain pasta, cauliflower, white beans, cashew nuts, tahini and miso paste. Similarly, the baked Nuggs & Mash is composed almost entirely of cauliflower and sprouted white beans. Erbas Soydaner promises the mushrooms and soybeans she adds in create a flavour akin to chicken, while sourdough breadcrumbs round out the flavour profile.
Papatryfon’s own picky-eating daughter Louiza, 6, approves of every one of these dishes, and they are among the most popular items on Sprout’s menu.
Childhood obesity on the rise
As mothers themselves, Papatryfon and Erbas Soydaner are hoping to promote optimal child development and prevent the onset of chronic disease. In the process, they’re also re-educating parents, busting one Big Food myth at a time. For instance, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says 76 per cent of the world gets most of its daily protein from plant sources. “Obesity is a gateway into many other diseases later in life. Most of the time, that’s food-driven, and it starts in childhood,” Erbas Soydaner says, recounting how her older daughter Solina’s nursery teacher reported that children often bring lunchboxes filled with Oreo cookies, crackers and fried snacks – even as Solina happily tucks into whole foods out of habit. “It’s a disaster. So that’s where we want to contribute positively to a paradigm shift in how and what children eat, starting with the UAE.”
The World Obesity Federation ranks the UAE among the world’s top 20 countries for childhood obesity over the next decade, with data suggesting that more than 40 per cent of schoolchildren carry unhealthy amounts of extra weight – Emiratis and expatriates alike.
As the company’s chief marketing officer, Papatryfon, 42, a Greek-American with two children, says she often finds herself fielding questions about nutrition: confusion around protein and cow’s milk are common, and she’s often told about unsubstantiated online articles and even doctors’ recommendations.
“I first found the whole plant-based way of eating intimidating, too,” she admits. “So I get where parents are coming from. But if I can get my kids to have cauliflower and sweet potato for one meal a day, I don’t feel guilty about whatever else they’ve eaten outside the home – whether it’s chicken nuggets or whatever. If you can do just one jar a day of something wholesome, naturally unprocessed and loaded with veggies and legumes, why on earth would you not?"
With research showing that it can take up to 15 exposures to the same food before a child accepts it, Sprout also includes a free jar of any food that a child refuses to eat with a customer’s next order. “This way, a parent has a chance to re-expose their child to the same food without feeling they have lost a battle. We have had several parents doing this, and it has been a great success with their children,” Papatryfon says. That, and a clean highchair.