Image courtesy of LittleMoochi.

Is your kid’s diet unhealthy? There’s an app for that.

A tech startup based at Carnegie Mellon University has developed LittleMoochi, an AI-powered virtual pet that encourages children to form positive eating habits in a fun way.

Here’s how it works: Your child adopts and names a LittleMoochi to establish an emotional attachment with the computerized pet. While your child enjoys a meal or snack, she can feed her pet at the same time by snapping a photo of what’s on her plate. Three times a day, the child is reminded to feed LittleMoochi.

LittleMoochi’s AI-powered backend enables the device to recognize millions of different types of foods. When kids consume wholesome fare, they receive more points, which can be cashed in for stickers to decorate their pet’s home. A balanced diet that includes all food groups helps the critter become stronger, smarter, cuter and healthier.

Courtesy of LittleMoochi.

If Moochi is only fed fried chicken all week, it’s going to get a little sick and will ask for vegetables and food in other categories. When Moochi is well fed, the character smiles and appears active and happy through animation.

“We also encourage children to try new healthy foods — for example — when Moochi eats broccoli for the first time, Moochi gets a ‘superman cape’ for being unafraid to try eating this new healthy food,” says Summer Xia, CEO of LittleMoochi.

The experience is positive and lets children make up their own minds about food.

“To avoid triggering an unhealthy relationship with food, we framed eating around bodily benefits rather than calories,” Xia says. “We want children to foster a healthy relationship with food. Instead of labeling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ children should learn how food makes them feel and form their own opinion about it.”

Last summer, the group worked with 10 families in the Pittsburgh region whose children used the app and reported on how they interacted with it.

“We design our reward system following the MyPlate way to encourage children to eat protein, vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy, in a balanced way,” says Xia.

Xia, who holds an MBA degree from CMU’s Tepper School of Business, was inspired to create the app by her daughter Yoyo.

The 5-year-old has a sweet tooth, favoring the Japanese snack mochi over veggies. The kitchen table was often turned into a battlefield, with both sides losing. Xia researched other apps but found they focused on calorie counting and weight tracking. Concerned that this could lead to an eating disorder, Xia came up with her own idea.

LittleMoochi was born in November 2018, when Xia met Zhuyun Dai, Yi Xu and Julie Qin in CMU’s Lean Entrepreneurship class. In 2019, the team racked up numerous awards, including first place and Audience Pick in the Forté Power Pitch Competition.

In January 2020, LittleMoochi launched in both the App Store and Google Play. Since then, and without much publicity, it’s been downloaded by about 400 users. It comes in handy under quarantine. The average number of photos taken every day increased by 15 percent after the stay-at-home order was issued.

Photo courtesy of LittleMoochi.

Yoyo is more willing to try new food, to benefit her and her Moochi, aka Sammi.

Xia says fostering healthy eating habits should be a fun and relaxing experience for the whole family. She offers some food for thought.

“I would encourage parents to do regular family meals,” she says. “It’s a good chance for parents to be role models and introduce new foods and food fun facts. Parents can also involve their child in meal planning and preparation. Studies show kids are more likely to try a food that they have a hand in choosing and preparing.”

How is her daughter Yoyo eating these days?

“She is getting used to checking the MyPlate blackboard in the game to see what food category her Moochi should eat to become healthier,” explains Xia. “She asks me to prepare the food that Moochi wants in the app. She is more willing to try new foods when Moochi wants to try them.”

By taking care of her Moochi, Yoyo is taking better care of herself.

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.