Bringing Cultural Foods to the Family Dinner Table

For far too many children of color, the cultural food traditions they grew up with are overshadowed by generic food and nutrition guidance from their schools and doctors. But that landscape is changing, as teachers and authors are putting cultural food traditions at the center of childhood education.

“My daughter Ruby was my inspiration,” explains Tambra Stevenson, MPH, the founder of WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, who authored “Little WANDA Finds a Cure for Nana” and serves as an African Heritage and Health Advisor for Oldways, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to improving public health.

“At 4 years old she got her first cavity, and she really enjoyed sweets. My son was the healthy eater. So I wanted to create a character to inspire her to become a healthy eater as well,” recalls Stevenson.

[READ: Healthy Eating for Families.]

Storytelling to Celebrate Cultural Food Traditions

In Stevenson’s story, Little WANDA goes on an adventure to heal her Nana’s diabetes with traditional African foods. “At WANDA, we recognize that our food is our medicine but also our identity. Adding humanity to our food culture is critical to building self-esteem and cultural pride,” she says.

Sarah Thomas, author and co-founder of the “Kalamata’s Kitchen” book series, expresses a similar commitment to celebrating cultural food traditions with young readers. “The stories we share are culturally and experientially specific. Indian cooking in the first book is inspired by my own memories, and Baba Nyonya Malaysian style in the second is inspired by chef Kyo Pang. But the messages are universal. It’s a way of celebrating and honoring unique identity while also highlighting our commonalities,” says Thomas.

“If a character like Kalamata had existed when I was a child, I know she could have helped me see myself, my food and my culture as something to be celebrated instead of something to suppress in order to fit in. I think, almost more importantly, that she would have helped the kids around me to see this ‘non-traditional,’ dark-skinned and big-haired little girl as a friend and hero. Perhaps they might have been more inclined to ask about my food at lunchtime instead of making fun of it. I never want a kid to feel ashamed of who they are or that they have to change themselves in order to be more acceptable.”

[READ: Parents Need to Know: Misguided Nutrition Assignments Put Kids at Risk.]

Cultural Foods in Nutrition Programming

For organizations working in the food and nutrition space, it is important for programming to include and even emphasize cultural foods. A Children’s Taste of African Heritage, a seven-week cooking and nutrition curriculum for children ages 8 to 12, introduces kids of all backgrounds to the healthy, plant-based foods that come from across the African Diaspora. The Common Core aligned program, which also meets SHAPE America fitness standards, was first introduced by Oldways in 2018 as a spinoff of the SNAP-Ed approved A Taste of African Heritage program for adults, and has continued to make an impact in the years since. “I have always loved food from my heritage,” wrote one 12-year-old participant,” and (now) I think that I love it more.”

In Hawaii, food advocates are also exploring how connecting kids with their roots can be used to address nutrition security. “Kai and Hōkū Explore Foods of Hawaii offers small digestible lessons for each of the eight foods featured in the book, most of which have strong cultural ties to both the ancient and more recent plantation history of Hawaii,” explains Chelsea Takahashi, the director of Healthy Food Access Initiatives at The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s Food Bank.

Takahashi hopes that “the immediate impact of reading our books is that they will help their parents identify and shop for (qualifying) local fruits and vegetables at the grocery store.”

[READ: Plant-Based Diets for Kids.]

Cultivating Curiosity Through Food Adventures

Takahashi explains that one of their motivations in creating Kai and Hōkū Explore Foods of Hawaii is to make trying new foods fun.

“Once we can instill this positive sense of exploration in young children, we know that opens their minds to having deeper thoughts and conversations around how food is connected to many aspects of their lives, including their health, environment, identity and community,” says Takahashi. “My hope for children who read Kai and Hōkū Explore Foods of Hawaii is that they gain a life-long sense of exploration in all aspects of their lives, but especially with the foods and recipes they try.”

This mindset is reflected in “Kalamata’s Kitchen” as well. “We believe very strongly that children who grow up with a sense of curiosity through food will naturally be more open-minded people– and that open-mindedness leads to a greater sense of respect for differences, and empathy for people whose lives are different from their own,” explains Thomas. “We also believe that kids who can get over the fear of the unfamiliar by trying a new food will be able to approach the unfamiliar in other ways with a sense of adventure and anticipation instead of fear and automatic dislike or distrust.”

Regardless of cultural background, rediscovering the culinary customs of our ancestors can be rewarding. One of the priorities put forth at the 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health is to invest in culturally tailored nutrition education. As leaders from across the food and nutrition community work together to reduce diet-related disease for the next generation, we hope that these creative solutions are just a taste of what’s to come.

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