Our Best Family Dinner Decision Does So Much More than Feed Our Kids

published May 19, 2021
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Mexican conchas cookies
Credit: Nicholas Dekker

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One of the things we love most about living in a larger city is the accessibility of cuisines from around the world. In addition to having delightful meals to try, we think international food is an opportunity to expand our boys’ palates and help them become better global citizens. This has felt even more important over the past year, as many events — from the summer 2020 protests over racial inequality to the recent violence targeting people of AAPI heritage — have highlighted the importance of learning to respect, support, and embrace the wonderfully diverse cultures around us.

In addition to having delightful meals to try, we think international food is an opportunity to expand our boys’ palates and help them become better global citizens.

So this year, inspired by some friends, we’ve embarked on a monthly project to focus on a different country, learning about its culture, food, and history; then ordering dinner from a local restaurant. This has allowed us to supplement our kids’ schooling while supporting local, and often family-run, restaurants in a time when so many are struggling.

Credit: Nicholas Dekker

Some topics we’ve discussed:

  • What continent is the country on? What other countries are nearby?
  • What’s the general history of the country? What is the structure of its government?
  • What are its geography, terrain, and climate?
  • What sports are played there?
  • What is the country known for producing? (Our first country was Ethiopia, and I was selfishly excited to talk about coffee with our boys.)
  • It’s also an opportunity to talk generally about immigration and what it means to adopt a new country as your own.

And then there’s the food:

  • What are the staple foods of the country? How is it grown, prepared, or served?
  • What do kids their age eat?
  • How is it eaten – with your hands, with certain utensils, in particular combinations?

Towards the end of the month, we pick a local restaurant and order carryout (or now that we’re vaccinated and restrictions have relaxed, we might dine in for a fuller experience). We try to get 3-4 dishes to share. A few months in, and it’s been a big success. The boys are engaged, and we get to eat lots of good food! One month, we learned about Ethiopia, so we ordered locally from Addis Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.

We also learned about Mexico, and aside from visits to old favorites like Los Guachos and Tula Taqueria, we explored the new La Plaza Tapatia supermarket to see what prepared foods and grocery items were different than a standard American supermarket. We’re getting a late start this month, but we’re trying to broaden our knowledge of China, its culture and cuisine. The boys are familiar with some Szechuan dishes, but we’re trying to emphasize how every country — just like the United States — is composed of unique regions, each with its own customs. So we’re thankful to have N.E. Chinese in Columbus, which features a different range of dishes and ingredients from the Dongbei region.

Our boys are 9 and 12, so I need to fend off my tendency, as a former university lecturer, to prepare a dry presentation. We discovered that YouTube is our friend. There are wonderful videos — many of them prepared specifically for children — to help them explore a country.

We found this one from Swift Fox Media, for instance, to talk about Ethiopia. It covers everything from music and dance, to greetings and religious ceremonies, to food, sports and housing. Travel blogger Mark Wiens’s videos tend to run 30 minutes or longer, but his reports are energetic, engaging and informative – like this one about a food tour around Addis Ababa. We’ll also put together a playlist of both traditional and modern music from the country. For our section on China, we’ve been following one of our favorite Instagram travel bloggers, Michael Zee of @symmetrybreakfast. Zee currently lives in Shanghai, and does a wonderful job of documenting street vendors, regional foods, agriculture and more.

We’re excited about the prospect of introducing the boys to a wider variety of foods and growing their knowledge of the world at large. At the very least, they’ll learn that the love of food and the comfort it brings is universal, and we’ll have a thrilling year of eating before us!