Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Food as a Foundation for Global Understanding

By Heather Loewecke — September 23, 2015 8 min read

Food is an integral part of every culture around the world and can be used as a substantive instructional tool. Today, Heather Loewecke, Senior Program Manager, Afterschool and Youth Leadership Initiatives, Asia Society, outlines some ideas for incorporating food and cooking into classrooms and afterschool programs. Visit our website for the full list of resources and tools. And be sure to join me on Twitter on Thursday, September 24, at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific as I moderate a special #GlobalEdChat about food topics for education.

The benefits of teaching children to cook are many: to develop independence and self-sufficiency; to increase awareness of healthy choices and nutrition; to make science and math concepts come alive through real-world applications; and to practice or reinforce the 21st century skills of collaboration, time management, communication, and problem solving. Food is also an obvious way to introduce young people to a variety of countries and cultures, but teachers and afterschool educators need to go beyond simple exposure of international dishes at food festivals in order to increase youth’s global competencies. Here are a variety of ways educators can design learning units using food and cooking as an instructional strategy to develop young people’s understanding of people and cultures through their cuisine. These are just a starting point and can overlap or be integrated with other courses or programs. All of these cooking units can lead to additional conversations, lessons, and projects about the food system and trade, sustainability, hunger, and food access.

Focus on a Country, Culture, or Theme
To begin introducing food and cooking to students, select a country to investigate through its food. Start by having students look at the country on both a world map and a topographical map and make assertions about the types ingredients that may be prevalent there based on its geography and climate. Ask if anyone has ever traveled to or lived in the country and what types of food they ate when there or what foods they associate with the country. This type of introduction allows educators to ascertain students’ current knowledge about a country while reinforcing geography concepts and vocabulary. From here, explore national or regional food customs and recipes based upon primary ingredients indigenous to a country sparking conversations about the climate needed to grow them.

Every culture has a unique dish that falls into a broad category or theme, such as a sandwich (po boy, taco, pita, banh mi, or roti), dumpling (knish, gyoza, raviolli, pierogi, empanada, samosa), or dipping sauce (guacamole, chutney, hummus, piri piri, chimichurri, harissa). You could explore a category of food dish by first defining it, then by creating different versions from around the world. Recipes are easy to find online by using search terms such as “street food around the world.” Compare and contrast ingredients and preparation methods.

Experiment with Food
Experimenting with the various methods of cooking and preserving food teaches students basic scientific principles and requires them to develop and test hypotheses, notate and track data, understand cause and effect, learn from observation and error, and discover how ingredients transform through physical or chemical applications. Food experiments can be a fun way to increase students’ comfort with science while teaching them crucial global competencies and 21st century skills. Once students understand how the chemical properties of food such as nutrition, aroma, flavor, color, and texture intersect and are affected by cooking procedures, they can become more skilled in choosing and preparing nutritious meals. Unit plans can center on each of the different cooking processes (canning, fermenting, drying, etc) and related recipes from cultures or historical periods that used each method. Students can apply the scientific method and compare the tastes and textures of foods prepared using several cooking methods. Units can also be designed around health and wellness, looking at traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda to explore how herbs and other foods are used for nutrition and healing.

Follow that Food

Link to social studies themes by studying a food’s origins and history. For example, the noodle originated in Asia and traveled westward and is now a staple of both Asian and Italian cuisines. Youth can explore the history of the noodle, trace its path around the world, and cook different noodle recipes, such as spaghetti and udon, to compare and contrast the cultural and regional influences on the resulting dishes. Take a look at the relevance of sugar to slavery, or how Spanish colonizers brought the cacao plant from South America to the Caribbean, or look at how the California Gold Rush inspired a convergence of camp food, local ingredients and food cultures due to the influx of migrants to the region. The potato was brought to Europe from Peru, where it later succumbed to a fungus causing a wide-scale famine in Ireland and also gave rise to new agricultural practices of fertilization and pesticide use. Older youth may go further with these topics by researching the current origins and impacts of the food they eat, global food issues related to a country’s agricultural and food production processes and policies, and trade. Recipes can also be explored through their individual histories, such as how the English trifle from the Renaissance led to the modern-day tiramisu.

Ritual and Religion
Food is a primal part of human social interaction. In Christian and Jewish customs, shared meal is described as “breaking bread” together. In the US, we give a casserole or cookies to welcome new neighbors; the Japanese give noodles. Swedish students used to bring apples to their teacher as payment for their education. In America, “an apple for the teacher” most likely originated when families on the frontier gave apples from the harvest to their instructors on the first day of school. Apples are also a symbol of “forbidden fruit” in Christianity.

Religious beliefs and practices, holiday traditions, and regional or cultural customs have a strong impact on what individuals or families consume. Explore the ways food choices are a part of religious beliefs and cultural traditions. Start by asking young people how food is used in their everyday activities and social interactions. Then, ask them to share about their religious or family customs associated with food. These prompts should open the door for extended conversations about how food is used in different aspects of life: for celebration or mourning; as expressions of beliefs; to facilitate courtship or social interactions; to mark events or the passage of time. Additional conversations about fasting, dietary restrictions, and dining etiquette can also be incorporated.

Make it Project-Based
Now that you’ve done some cooking with kids, they can take those skills to design and implement cooking related projects they are interested in. Cooking clearly allows youth to learn through a hands-on approach and to demonstrate their new knowledge and skills. Having youth also apply new concepts and strategies through the development and completion of projects will deepen their understanding through an extended process of learning. Here are some project ideas:

Additional PBL Resources:

Addressing the Lack of Time & Resources
A typical class period or afterschool club lasting 45 minutes isn’t long enough to complete many cooking activities. Consider several options to manage this challenge:


  • Prepare some recipe components in advance. For example, cook rice before class and have students turn it into fried rice during class. Or, while one class or group is waiting for their dish to finish baking, have them chop vegetables that the next group will need so they can continue to practice skills during down time.
  • Complete lessons in two or three parts. For example, do research or direct instruction or demonstrations during one session and then cook the food during the next lesson. Or have students cook pasta during one lesson and make the sauce during a subsequent lesson.
  • Use groups. Have students prepare recipe components in groups and bring them together at a designated time. For example, one group can prepare and bake a pie crust while another group prepares the filling and a third prepares the topping. At the end of the prep time, assemble the entire dish.
  • Flip that lesson! Videotape demonstrations for students to watch outside of class and have them prepare the recipe during class.
  • A full kitchen isn’t required for a cooking class or club. Consider asking parents and colleagues to donate unused, working appliances such as hot plates, crockpots, microwaves, blenders, knives, utensils, dishes and cookbooks. Use Donors Choose to request resources. Reach out to local restaurants, grocery stores and food banks for food donations. Apply for grants to support diversity education, wellness and youth development goals.

Cooking is an instructional strategy that offers youth a hands-on, creative, and fun way to explore countries and cultures, increase understanding of self and others and develop life-long skills and global competencies. Bon appétit! Buen provecho! Itadakimasu!

Connect with Heather Singmaster and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image: A student cooks macaron cookies. Courtesy of Asia Society.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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