Bringing the World to Your Young Children in Fun and Tasty Ways!

Julie Pippert
July 16, 2009

We all like to add some diversity and culture to our lives, but what's the best way to bring it to young children? The challenge is to make it interesting, engaging, and age-appropriate. To find out the best way to bring culture to young kids, I turned to two talented ladies from Houston, Carrie Pacini and Marla Trevino, who are experts in inspiring life and culture through food, parties, and travel. They co-founded OPMOM to share their ideas, inspiration, experiences, recipes, and more.

Ideas for introducing your heritage or another heritage to your children

Carrie Pacini suggests reaching out to children using their own interests, particularly through language, food and music.

"I have found the children love learning about other countries and traditions through learning new words, trying different cuisines, and dancing," said Pacini, a mother to two young children and entertainment connoisseur, "Dancing has brought out cultures from Spain, India, Italy, and Czech Republic. Even if you can't travel to find culture you can create a window of it in your home."

Many cities offer a wide variety of multi-cultural festivals that are family-friendly. Many include dancing or are centered around dancing. My own children are fascinated by any kind of dancing, and even just watching a few dances from So You Think You Can Dance has prompted them to ask about dance styles from India (Bollywood) and Spain (tango). Our family has also enjoyed a local Greek festival, where the children are exposed to a mini-taste of a complete culture, from food, to music, drinks, singing, dancing, and more.

Pacini also suggests themed holidays, "We have always celebrated Christmas with different cultures and the children love it. Every year they pick a country and we buy an ornament that represents that country and make the traditional meal. So far we have celebrated Germany, England, France, and Belgium. We haven't picked one out for 2009 but I am hoping for Spain!"

It's easy to make holidays and festivals fun, but convincing children to try new foods might pose a challenge. Pacini has an idea for that, too.

Best methods for introducing children to new foods

The best path to success is simple: accentuate the familiar to children.

"Find similarities that you can pull from that doesn't make it so foreign to them. So try to think of what it is that they like and find that common thread in other cuisines. For example we eat a ton of pasta because we are Italian but I can serve the kids an Indian Rice dish in a sauce with Nan and they love it," said Pacini.

Work in the familiar: "Quesadillas are like grilled cheese, except with yummy tortillas." Also, consider your child's preferences and work the new ethnic food around that. If your child doesn't prefer spicy food, but does like chicken, consider letting them sample Chinese orange chicken. If you're at a restaurant, see if the waiter has a suggestion, and don't be afraid to ask if they can customize. For example, my children love quesadillas, but don't prefer the meat inside, so we ask for that on the side, instead.

Many foreign foods, including the familiar such as quesadillas, are easy to make, and that's the point: keep it simple. Kids often want food quickly, and they frequently prefer it to be simple enough that they can break down the ingredients in their minds without a struggle. Remember they have developing taste buds. It's okay if they don't like it the first time; leave the door open for future tries because their tastes do change.

Feel free to offer new tastes at snack time, too. Pacini has some delicious suggestions for "cultural" snacks, "I find the children love dipping pita or veggies in Hummus which is a big hit. The kids love brie and blue cheese, Crepes, and thimble pasta which is called ditalini, a childhood favorite. All kids who come to our house love this dish and always surprise their parents by polishing the bowl off. We also love serving Nutella and brie sandwiches, paninis with veggies melted in a good cheese. We have also introduced our children to sushi by getting them used to California rolls and they love it!"

Serve interesting lessons with and around the snack, such as:

  • Language - "Did you know that Hummus is an Arabic word for chickpeas?"
  • Music - Consider playing some music from the region while the kids eat. Talk about what sounds different and familiar in the music, and what you do and don't like about it.
  • Art - Try an art project that incorporates cultural elements---much Middle-Eastern art uses patterns or simple line drawings that can inspire children. The Houston Museum of Fine Art has a nice collection of ethnic art---you might even like to take a field trip!
  • Social Studies - Show a map of the Middle-East and point out places such as Lebanon and Palestine, areas where hummus originated.
  • Stories - Tell a funny story about the food and history. Hummus carries a story that my kids would love: the famous Roman orator, Cicero, was named for an ancestor who had a wart on his nose shaped like a chickpea. Grossology is always a big hit with kids.

You and your children might feel more comfortable initially trying new ethnic foods at home, but when you're ready, Pacini said, "I think great ethnic restaurants for kids would be Italian, French, Spanish (tapas), Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, and German."

Many ethnic restuarants display culturally specific art, play native music, and some, if you're lucky, are owned by people originally from a foreign place. Interesting culture and diverse ethnic experiences are frequently all around us. If you make a point to notice, you can use it as a great teaching moment with your kids. At home, small but fun things that appeal to children, such as art, music, food and language offer a wide open door to show kids the broad and fascinating world beyond their own borders. That's one of the greatest gifts you can give a child.

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