From the day of her conception, my daughter has been exposed to ethnic food. Heck, it was a spicy tomatillo salsa that put me into labor (okay, it may have been coincidental, but I’m convinced she was tired of tube-feeding by umbilical cord and wanted the real thing). As a breastfeeding-mom, I recall an aunt advising me to give up Indian curry to help my baby have more (ahem) solid stool. Aghast at this suggestion, I tried giving up dairy instead.
My daughter is now four and my son almost two. Not too surprisingly, they both rank ethnic food up with the likes of mac and cheese. While I love the diversity of their palates, what I love even more is how it has created a starting point for a growing global-awareness in our family.
After seeing how much our kids loved exotic dishes, we began talking about where those dishes originate. Our daughter’s curiosity was piqued! Yet she still needed something tangible to understand that there were far away cultures much different than the one she knew.
Our conversations really took flight when – dorky parents that we may be – we bought her an interactive world floor-map for Christmas. She was hooked. While her brother wildly stomped around the flat globe as if claiming it as his own, we tried to identify some of the countries whose food we eat. In the quieter moments when her brother wasn’t loudly parading across the surface of the earth, we talked about the challenges these people face and what we could do to help them.
Though our approach to creating global-awareness with our kids is ever-evolving, here are some of the ideas we’ve loved implementing as a family:
I’m a believer that the earlier you start your kids with ethnic flavors, the more likely they are to grow a diverse palate. I’m sure there is some genetic influence on taste preferences, but we adopted my son from here in the U.S. as an infant, and he loves Indian food just as much as my biological daughter.
If your kids are older, the biggest hurdle is convincing them to try new food (introduce it as a dare at first!). While there are likely dishes from every culture that might make your stomach churn (I, for one, am a wimp when it comes to unconventional animal-parts), you may all be surprised to find some really fantastic foods that please the Western palate as well! Some of our favorites are Indian Butter Chicken (chicken and rice in a creamy tomato-sauce with fragrant spices like cinnamon and cumin), Israeli Falafel (fried chickpea patties in a pita, often served with a yogurt sauce), Korean Bibimbap (crunchy fried rice and veggies), Bosnian Cevapi and Burek (slightly spicy sausages and homemade snail-shaped phyllo pastry, usually stuffed with meat or cheese), and Thai Massaman Curry (fried potatoes and onions in a spicy coconut-milk sauce, served over rice).
If you’re not much of a cook, check out the international aisle of your local grocery store. More than likely they have sweets from around the world that everyone in the family would be willing to try. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, find a restaurant to visit. Google-search the dishes on their menu to order something you think your kids would like.
Food can open the door to learning, so don’t stop at just trying new cuisines. While waiting for your order at an international restaurant, take in your surroundings and talk about the cultural significance of the decor. Back at home, dig deeper: Is there a cultural festival or museum in your city? What international traditions could you replicate for a night of imaginative travel? Are there games children from other countries play that you could learn together as a family? Listen to their music and learn some of their words. Once you get the ball rolling, your kids will be propelled by curiosity!
While eating and exploring are fun, the real purpose is not to boast of a diverse palate or an expansive knowledge of the world’s cultures. The point is to draw our kids into a relationship with the greater world. All around the globe, people are living in persecution and poverty and there are many ways our families can help. Find out if you can volunteer at a refugee center in your city. Raise money for an international justice organization. Send a Christmas shoebox to a child through Samaritan’s Purse. Help a family become self-sustaining by purchasing them farm animals through Heifer International.
You can also sponsor a child with an organization like Compassion International, World Vision, or Save the Children. Our family sponsors a little boy from Bangladesh. In addition to helping fund his education and meals, it’s been fun corresponding back and forth with letters, pictures, and drawings.
Perhaps the ethnic foods I’ve described sound a little too exotic for your taste or digestive system, but even pasta or tacos can be a starting point to draw your family into a heightened awareness of other cultures from around the world. Make food the ambassador to your kid’s hearts. Who knows, maybe in doing so, they’ll grow up to be ambassadors themselves.
It takes a village!
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