Food memory bank

Use meals to explore your family's cultural roots with your middle-schooler.

By Sarah Henry

Food is a fantastic teaching tool. Children can learn about math, chemistry, nutrition, biology, culture, history — you name it — all while playing with something that's both tactile and tasty.

And since eating is an everyday activity, food-related exercises help kids explore their environment through a medium that's fun and familiar. Adults can pass on their values about food, stress the importance of eating wholesomely, and encourage kids to learn to cook dishes they love as well as try something new as part of an edible education. The activity that follows can be adapted for any age group. Enjoy!

The project: Trace your family history through food

Family recipes, and the stories behind them, do more than satisfy hungry stomachs — they feed our sense of history. Whether it’s homemade falafel, spring rolls, or biscuits, food conjures up many memories and emotions and connects us to our heritage. It also informs kids about their cultural identity and gives them a sense of community. This exercise will help your middle-schooler hone his research and writing skills — while whetting his appetite.

What you’ll need

Help your child choose a holiday, family celebration, or routine meal — and the foods you serve on these occasions — as an opportunity to discuss your family's ethnic origins. It could be Thanksgiving, Passover, Christmas, a birthday, or simply an everyday dish or dinner with roots in your family's cultural background.

Make it happen

Chat with your child about your family’s heritage and its connection to the foods you eat and the dishes you cook — whether it's making tortillas from scratch, cooking latkes, simmering collard greens on the stovetop, or rolling out the dough for baklava. Give him any background you know so he can come up with questions to ask the cooks in the family — and have him fill in the gaps through his own research.
Have your child ask questions about the ingredients, cooking methods, and presentation of the food. He should interview whoever is involved in shopping for, preparing, or cooking the dishes that reflect your family’s roots. Maybe he'll need to watch Grandma whip up a batch of her famous falafel, ask Grandpa the secret to his well-rolled sushi, help his aunt bake a perfect pavlova, or go with you to the Indian market to pick up spices.

You may want to help your child come up with a list of questions in advance. Some suggestions include:

  • Why do we eat this meal or dish?
  • Where in the world does it come from?
  • Has our family and/or ancestors always eaten it?
  • What are the key ingredients and spices that make this meal distinct?
  • Have the ingredients, preparation, or cooking of this dish changed over the years?
  • Is there any cultural significance or meaning to this dish?
  • What do you like about this recipe?

After your child has collected all the information he needs, have him write up his family food memory. Encourage him to tell a story rather than just regurgitate a series of food facts. Suggest he include any anecdotes he learned along the way that makes this meal special to your family.

Adding a picture or photo can liven up the page. Since this is a personal essay, ask your child to include details about what makes this meal or dish special to him. Maybe he enjoys the slippery feel of the vermicelli noodles as he helps to make spring rolls, or the anticipation of melted chocolate in the fondue, or the messy pleasure of picking out pomegranate seeds — and sampling a few along the way.

Sarah Henry writes about food matters at Lettuce Eat Kale.