Cultural diversity is an important concept that shapes us as individuals and as a society. Grasping its importance at an early age means understanding and appreciating that people are different, and that’s what makes the world more interesting. In particular, teaching kids early on about different foods, eating habits, and mealtime traditions can help them understand, appreciate, and embrace people from different backgrounds later in life.
The “lunchbox moment” has become the subject of countless personal essays, as many immigrant adults can relate to it. What are staple foods at home can often be perceived as foreign and exotic in public, creating an environment of shame or hostility among peers in the cafeteria. Fortunately, media awareness and pop culture have shed light on food experiences in school and are educating parents about how to teach their kids to not only accept, but also to be grateful for the foods of other civilizations.
Here are a few practical tips you can try at home to introduce diverse food traditions to your kids, and the whole family.
Explain the cultural significance
Food culture is often dictated by religion, geography, lifestyle, and family beliefs. By explaining the cultural significance of certain foods in specific parts of the world, you can make the dinner experience a lot more interesting and educational. A great way to do this is by researching food traditions online and by talking to friends from different ethnic groups.
Look up the symbolism of certain vegetables and fruits. For example, if your child has never tasted a pomegranate and is reluctant to try it, tell them eating pomegranate could make them smarter—in Judaism, each of the 613 seeds of the pomegranate fruit (make them count the seeds if they don’t believe you) stands for one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, the Jewish holy book.
Want to cut down on meat? Introduce an Indian diet that primarily consists of lentils, rice, wheat, and vegetables. Explain how a majority of Hindus avoid eating meat to minimize causing pain to other lifeforms and to keep their bodies and minds pure.
Have fun with food projects
Using different eating tools makes mealtime fun and playful. Use chopsticks for a sushi night, and temper it with familiar flavors in the form of California rolls or shrimp tempura rolls, so they start gravitating toward Japanese food. Invest in a thali (an Indian bento box) that compartmentalizes curries and breads into sections.
Who doesn’t love smiley-faced pancakes? One of the ways to get kids to try new things is by presenting them with easily recognizable shapes, such as hearts, stars, animals, and whimsical scenes. Paint a Dominican-themed plate with steamed rice in place of palm tree trunks, fried plantains for leaves, and black beans as soil. This will open up a discussion of the country’s landscape and geography, too.
(Check out these fun food art ideas on Instagram for some incredible inspiration.)
Cook and eat together
During lockdown, many families turned to cooking at home as a way to occupy themselves, save money, and eat healthier. Others initiated a “travel through palate” series for themselves, cooking foods from a different destination each week.
It is more fun to experiment with new foods if the entire family is on board with the process. You can collectively research recipes online, watch YouTube videos, follow food blogs, read recipe books, and create your own themed nights. Go to farmers’ markets or specialty grocery stores to shop for ingredients. Set the scene with decorations and ambiance—for a Moroccan dinner, everyone can sit on the living room floor around a coffee table; for an Ethiopian meal, eat from the same plate using only your hands.
Practice corresponding table etiquette from each country, too. For example, in the Middle East, you eat only with your right hand, as your left hand is reserved for sanitary purpose. In Ethiopia, it is traditional to feed each other. In China, slurping noodles noisily is totally acceptable, and burping at the end of the meal is considered a compliment!
Play food careers
Television shows such as MasterChef Junior, The Big Family Cooking Showdown, and Kids Baking Championship have made kids more interested in the culinary arts. Besides involving the entire family in the kitchen, you can also play creative games that mirror popular cooking shows and food professions, such as playing the role of a chef, pastry chef, cooking competition judge, food blogger, or restaurant critic.
Especially when trying unfamiliar foods, urge kids to slowly chew and verbally describe it, rather than writing it off right away as “gross.” Ask them to explain what the food looks like, what it smells like, what flavors pop out, and what they like or dislike. These conversations can help children vocalize their reaction to the food in expressive terms, rather than use offensive words or sounds. It also helps them understand their flavor palate better while also expanding their vocabulary.
Encourage a polite bite
Understand there will be times when the dish in front of them is just not appetizing. Even as an adult, I have encountered situations where my preconceived notions prevented me from accepting, let alone enjoying, new things (think whale steak in Greenland, duck embryo in the Philippines, and camel milk in Mongolia). But I realized that if people have been eating and drinking these things for centuries, it can’t be that bad.
It is best to have a conversation with kids about how to deal with such situations before they arise. Part of cultural education is making them realize that everyone is different and has unique food preferences. Someone may like sour and pungent flavors, while others prefer sweet or spicy. All kinds of food offer an array of nutrition that are important for us as humans. We should not criticize people based on the things they eat, as it also implies we don’t respect their families, heritage, and cultures.
Inspire young eaters to have an open mind and always accept whatever they are offered, even if it is only to take a small polite bite. Set an example by tasting it yourself first and reacting in a gracious way. Once kids see that mom, dad, and older siblings enjoy a certain dish, they are more likely to be curious about it and not want to miss out on the shared experience.
Article thanks to offspring.lifehacker.com