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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

How do cultures around the world celebrate food and family at meals?

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

families from around the world eat together

Meals eaten with family are valued around the world. They are valued for not only the nourishing food they provide but more so for the opportunity to connect with family.

Additionally, meals are an important means for passing down traditions and foodways from one generation to the next. Meals are an expression of our cultural heritage.

What can we learn about a culture at meals?

We can learn a lot about people when we learn how they experience meals. Our culture influences many aspects of meals – our food choices, meal frequency and timing, preparation methods, mealtime etiquette, norms regarding conversation at meals, and more.

Think about your own mealtime practices. In your current household or your family of origin, who plans meals? Who procures the food, who prepares and presents it, and how do various family members participate?

Is there a routine to how a meal starts or ends, who eats first, and other expectations?

How about how food is eaten? What utensils are used? What foods are eaten straight from the bowl, or eaten with your hands?

How does culture influence food choice?

The foods common to a particular culture are influenced by a variety of factors including food availability, geography, economics, religious practices, and cultural traditions.

A staple starch is a prominent feature of meals around the world. Rice is the staple starch in many cultures. In others, the staple starch is couscous, polenta, quinoa, or another grain. Potatoes are a common staple starch in others. Pasta and noodles are common staple foods. Various types of bread are another common staple starch at meals and include yeast bread as well as flat breads such as naan, pita bread, and tortillas.

The types of meat consumed as well as the amount and frequency are influenced by religious practices, availability, and economic factors. More affluent cultures consume more meat.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables influence what is commonly served at meals. In some cultures, vegetables along with the staple starch are the centerpiece of the meal. In other cultures, they are side dishes. Herbs and spices used in cooking are also culturally specific and related to what is grown or available in a region.

Beverages commonly consumed are influenced by culture. After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. In the United States, tea is consumed most as iced tea and coffee is the more popular hot beverage. In some cultures, drinking milk is common, in others it is only consumed by infants and young children. Which type of alcohol is most common is also culturally specific – is it beer, wine, or liquor such as vodka?

To appreciate the typical composition of an American meal, look at MyPlate – a tool for guiding food choices. It has four main components – a protein source, a starch or grain, fruit, and vegetables, with dairy on the side. This tool was designed to be culturally appropriate.

Other countries have food guides that work with their cultural food choices.

How does culture influence meal patterns and frequency?

In addition to food choices, culture also influences the order in which foods are eaten at a meal, what meals are consumed and when, which meals are larger and smaller, and how leisurely a meal is consumed.

In the United States, the typical meal pattern is breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The meal most commonly eaten with other family members present is dinner. The most commonly skipped meal is breakfast.

Many cultures gather with family for a larger meal eaten midday. In agricultural areas, breakfast and lunch are larger meals than in urban areas where dinner is the largest meal eaten daily.

When dinner is served varies widely from early evening to quite late. Later meals often have more courses and last longer.

Other “meals” include brunch, which is a combination of breakfast and lunch, and is an American phenomenon. A tradition in Great Britain is “high tea,” which is a light supper eaten in the evening, or “tea,” a substantial snack eaten at about 4 pm.

When food is NOT eaten is also influenced by culture. For example, during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, food is not eaten from sunup to sundown. Therefore, breakfast is eaten before dawn, and dinner is eaten after sundown.

How do various cultures celebrate food and family?

Around the world, in all cultures, celebrating holidays, weddings, and other special events includes sharing meals. The foods served and how they are presented are culturally specific.

For example, Thanksgiving in the United States features many traditional foods such as turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. A Chinese New Year celebration might feature a fish served whole with the head facing the elders at the table. Other foods might include steamed dumplings or long noodles which signify a long life.

Consider which holidays you celebrate and what your family serves for each one… New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, 4th of July, Bastille Day, Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Birthdays… Which food choices are specific to your family and which ones are more specific to your broader culture?

In addition to traditional foods, are there other traditions your family observes at holiday meals? Have you heard of Christmas Crackers, which are fancily-wrapped cardboard cylinders filled with small gifts that are often opened during Christmas dinner in Great Britain?

The variations of what constitutes a meal and how it is experienced are endless. No one approach is better than another. In all cases, coming together to eat with family is celebrated and provides nourishment for body and soul. Stronger bodies and relationships are nurtured.

In honor of Family Meals Month, celebrated every September, we are focusing this month on what makes sharing meals with others something worth celebrating. We are exploring:

Looking for ways to promote family meals? I have lots of free resources!

“Sitting down to a meal together draws a line around us. It encloses us and strengthens the bonds that connect us with other members of our self-defined clan...” ~ Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals

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