Family Mealtime Adventures

Teaching kids about different cultures is a great way to defeat stereotypes, break down barriers, and help kids value and respect people who are different from them. So why not give your kids the opportunity to experience the many cultures that make up our diverse planet and country? A fun way to explore our diversity is by trying out foods and mealtime customs of other nationalities and unique American regions.

If your kids are picky eaters, don’t sweat it. There are yummy foods from every culture kids will love. Try some of the following dishes at local ethnic eateries. If you can’t find the cuisine in your area, find recipes online for your whole family to enjoy cooking together.

1. Middle-Eastern. There are many different Arab cuisines. The most popular in America is Lebanese. Hummus and pita bread is a healthy mouth-watering appetizer. If your family has only tried store-bought hummus, they’ll be in for a real treat with fresh, authentic hummus. Deliciously seasoned chicken shawarma, which you can order as a dinner or in a pita sandwich, is a favorite Lebanese meal.

There are several Lebanese meal customs to keep in mind. First, dress well. Then greet your elders first and wait to be told where to sit. Also, hold your fork in your left hand (knife goes in the right), try all foods at the table, and be prepared to take seconds and thirds at the offering of your host.

2. Indian. The food of India varies somewhat by region, but there are several Indian dishes kids love. Curd rice, a yogurt rice dish of Southern India, is a favorite. Eat it plain or combine it with lentils or a meat dish. Also, nearly everyone, including kids, loves Tandoori chicken. A Northern India favorite is mutter paneer, a curry dish made with peas and fried cubed cottage cheese in a tomato sauce.

A few meal customs to observe include thoroughly washing your hands before the meal and eating with your hands. Avoid mixing utensils between different dishes. Also, hygiene is essential, so Indians don’t dip into shared bowls, share cutlery or pass food with their fingers. In rural settings, Indians dress comfortably and sit on floor mats.

3. Korean. Rice is the foundation of every Korean meal. In fact, the Korean word for rice, bap, is also used to mean “meal.”  A traditional Korean meal will also include three other essential components: kimchi, soup or stew, and a small bowl of soy sauce. The rest of the meal consists of side dishes or banchan such as vegetables, pancakes, meat or a stir fry dish. A simple meal will have three banchan; an elaborate meal would have 12.

The banchan is shared by the whole table, but everyone gets their own bowl of rice and soup. The meal is eaten with a spoon and a pair of metal chopsticks. Metal chopsticks are more challenging to use, and beginners will want to start with a wooden pair. 

4. Greek. Pita gyros stuffed with chicken or pork, tomatoes, and lettuce are the most popular Greek food. There’s also spanakopita, which is a great way to get kids to eat their veggies. These turnovers are stuffed with zucchini. There’s also crispy and gooey Tyri saganaki (fried cheese) which everyone loves.

To eat like the Greeks, be prepared to adjust your meal schedule. They eat lunch around 2 p.m. and don’t eat dinner before 9 p.m. Also, eating with your fingers rather than silverware is common, even with meat.

5. Irish. Shepherd’s pie is an all-time favorite Irish dish. But don’t let ‘pie’ fool you. It isn’t a dessert. Instead, it’s a tasty entree of beef or lamb, vegetables and mashed potatoes. Boxty (potato pancakes) is another Irish food kids love, as well as leek and potato soup.

Irish food customs are quite familiar. But keep your fork in your left hand preferably with the tines turned down. Also, keep your elbows off the table, and don’t get wild with hand gestures while holding your silverware.

6. Argentinian. Traditionally in Argentina, the empanada was known as the working man’s meal because it contained the full meal in a portable pocket making it easy to carry to work. The empanada is still a staple food in Argentina. 

Most kids love empanadas, a delicious filled pastry pocket. Savory varieties are filled with different combinations of meat, vegetables, cheese and sauces or spices. Dessert empanadas are sweet and may be filled with fruit, cream cheese or chocolate. Dulce de leche, meaning “sweet from milk” is a very popular empanada filling and is prepared by slowly heating sweetened milk.  

7. Thai. Pad Thai is an introductory dish loved by everyone. This sweet and savory noodle dish is made with peanut sauce. Gaeng Daeng (red curry) is another delicious choice. Thai is the hottest (spicy-hot) cuisine you’ll find. So request mild for your kids. For dessert, don’t miss out on sticky rice served with mango!

Thai people typically use a fork and a short spoon for eating, rather than chopsticks. Each person gets a plate of rice. Then all the other dishes on the table are shared among each other and poured over rice. Young kids usually sit on their parents’ laps and are spoon-fed rather than sitting in high-chairs.

8. Basque. Not to be confused with Mexican food, one of the Basque dishes kids enjoy is paella, which is a rice and meat dish. It can be made with rabbit or squid, which some kids won’t be too keen on. But it can also be made with chicken or other seafood.

Late dining is also standard in the Basque Country. Plan to eat lunch between 2-4 p.m. and dinner between 9-11 p.m. Also, the Basque don’t eat and run. They sometimes linger for hours enjoying good company and conversation.

9. Cajun. This style of Louisiana cooking is well-known for its shellfish dishes and spice. Jambalaya, made with sausage, shellfish, celery and rice stew, is one of several favorites. Another is gumbo, made with meat stew, seafood and okra.

In Southern Louisiana, food is relished, and preparation is taken quite seriously. Cooks aren’t content to serve mediocre food. So, conversation about what you had to eat the night before is common.

10. Vietnamese. The most famous Vietnamese dish for both kids and adults is Pho. This noodle soup is made with beef or chicken. But it’s much more substantive than the chicken soup Americans eat. It’s usually served with fresh veggies on the side. Another yummy dish is banh goi. These deep-fried pockets are filled with meat, mushrooms and other vegetables.

The Vietnamese typically eat with chopsticks and a soup spoon. As a sign of respect, a bowl and spoon are handed to the eldest man at the table first. Don’t begin eating until everyone is seated and the most elderly man takes his first bite.