My kids adore the Elephant & Piggie Book Series by Mo Willems.
Recently, we read one of their book installments called “I Really Love Slop.” In the story, Piggie excitedly tells her friend, Gerald the Elephant, that “pigs really, really, really, really, really like slop!” She holds up a big blue bowl filled with green mush, inviting him to try a taste as flies circle overhead, and goes on to say, “eating slop is part of pig culture.” At first Gerald panics. His face turns green. He moans and groans. Eventually, he takes one lick.
Gerald struggles to enjoy Piggie’s food, at one point his whole body stiffens from the flavor, but the point of the story is that he tries a bite. He does not like slop, but he’s glad he tried it as he tells Piggie, “Because I really like you.”
After I read this book with my kids, my son immediately replied, “and that’s why we always try a bite of other people’s food too!” We ended up having a fun conversation about the different cuisines we regularly eat from Indian and Mexican food to the foods we eat at other people’s homes, including Ethiopian, Nicaraguan, and Chinese food. I asked them which ones were easier to try and which ones felt “scary.” The language of this book helped my kids move from seeing unfamiliar foods from initially “foreign” to something worth trying, at least once, out of love for our friends.
As parents, we have the opportunity to develop our kid’s appreciation for other cultures through the foods that people eat. Here are 3 simple phrases we can use to help our children move in this direction:
1) “Let’s try a bite to show love to our friends”
Kids need to have motivators for trying new things that extend beyond themselves. If they’re only taught to engage with foods that feel normal or comfortable (hello, pizza), they’ll be cautious and possibly even averse to cuisines they’ve never eaten before.
When we first began our own food journey as a family to become more race-wise as it relates to our people’s cuisines, I tried to encourage my kids with phrases like, “Come on, it will be fun!” or “You might like it!” What I’ve learned is that kids usually decide fairly quickly whether a food will be fun or enjoyable. If they’ve set themselves against a food item, you won’t be able to move them toward engagement via the “fun factor.”
Instead, we can see foods of different cultures as an opportunity to encourage practices of love. When I tell my kids, “God made this food” and “When we eat it, we show God’s love to the people who made it,” they are more inclined to try something they initially didn’t want to touch.
2) “I’m so glad you noticed how this food smells. What kind of ingredients do you think make that smell?”
It is a parent’s fear that their child is going to make a public statement that someone else’s food looks or tastes “yucky” or “gross.” If this happens, as best you can, don’t freak out. Your child is using their skills of observation. Their senses are on high alert. They can see and smell the differences in food, and that’s actually a good thing. So our first response should be an affirmation of what our child is sensing.
What we want to do is move our kids away from using negative descriptions to factual statements. For example: “That earthy smell you detect? That’s cilantro. It adds flavor to a dish” or “Heat that sizzling sound? That’s the beef being cooked in a pan. Beef has good protein for our body.”
When we begin to name individual ingredients and spices, we can begin to picture it, become familiar with it, and hopefully be more willing to engage with it. This helps lay the path for treating all foods as equal and as equally nourishing and beneficial to our bodies.
3) “You don’t have to eat the whole thing. Just try a bite”
No doubt, eating new food is hard. If we force our kids to finish their plate when eating a new food of another culture, we might squash any desire for them to try a new cuisine ever again. In other words, we need to take baby steps as opposed to throwing our young ones into the deep end of the food pool.
For toddlers and preschoolers, have them either lick the food or just try one bite. If your child is in elementary school, ask them to take the number of bites that correlates to their age. For example, my son is six. When he has a hard time eating a new ethnic food, I tell him “you only need to take six bites.” Giving him a short, concrete goal empowers him.
We can give our children the tools to see ethnic foods through humble, race-wise lenses, so that their posture of heart leans toward curiosity and love, rather than disgust and rejection. Let’s make it a goal as race-wise families to go on a food journey together with our kids. We can affirm their senses, help them become foodie detectives, lean into a posture of love, and try portion sizes that are age appropriate. It is possible to find creative and healthy ways to engage with cuisines from other cultures, and sometimes it just begins with simple, gentle responses.
Michelle Ami Reyes, PhD, is the Vice President of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the Scholar in Residence at Hope Community Church. She is the author of Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures. Dr. Reyes has contributed to several book chapters including The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School and Take Heart: 100 Devotions to Seeing God When Life’s Not Okay. She serves on the board for Redbud Writers Guild, is a writing fellow at Missio Alliance, and a regular contributor at (in)courage and Think Christian. Her writing on faith and culture can be found in many other publications, including Christianity Today, Patheos, and Faithfully Magazine. She lives in Austin, Texas with her pastor husband and two amazing kids. You can connect with her and her work at https://michelleamireyes.com