Follow the Food

Cooking Our Way to Global Understanding

 A student cooks macaron cookies.

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. Read below for a variety of ways educators can design learning units using cooking as an instructional strategy to develop young people's understanding of people and cultures through their cuisine.

Focus on a Country or Culture

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. For example, if Italy is the country of focus, ask questions like, "Where is Italy located in the world? What types of landforms or bodies of water do you see? What might the climate be? How might the climate affect what types of crops grow there or what types of food people eat?" 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 recipes based upon primary ingredients indigenous to a country and the related food customs. For example, through these initial conversations, educators can elicit that Italy is rich with tomatoes, seafood, and pasta, which in turn can spark conversations about the climate needed to grow tomatoes, the origin of pasta, regional seafood dishes, and Italy's food customs.


Pick a Theme

Every culture has a unique dish that falls into a broad category or theme, such as a sandwich (po boy, taco, pita, banh mi, roti), dumpling (knish, gyoza, raviolli, pierogi, empanada, samosa), salad (corn, letttuce, potato, cucumber, orzo, caprese) or dipping sauce (guacamole, chutney, hummus, piri piri, chimichurri, harissa). 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.


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, we describe a shared meal as "breaking bread" together. Dating around the world largely centers around food. In the US, we give a casserole or cookies to welcome new neighbors; the Japanese give noodles. Chinese brides and grooms serve tea to their parents on their wedding day as a sign of gratitude and respect. The British have a "cuppa" with their late afternoon snack called High Tea. Swedish students used to bring apples to their teacher as payment for their education. In the US, "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 be incorporated. These conversations can introduce the cooking class or club, help youth get to know each other, and inform future lessons and recipes to cook that stem from students’ curiosities and link to other strategies suggested here.


Play 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 and related recipes from cultures or historical periods that used each method such as salt preservation, curing, and smoking (chorizo in Spain, bacalhau in Portugal); kneading; applying heat; canning, brining, and pickling (mulberries in Iran); fermenting (kimchi in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany); dehydrating; emulsifying; and baking and the use of yeast, acids, bases, salt, and sugar. Or, these experiments can be incorporated into any of the other approaches suggested here as appropriate for the dish being cooked. 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.


These cooking strategies 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.

Make it Project Based

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 ideas for cooking projects:

Additional Project-Based Learning (PBL) Resources

Dealing with Challenges

"Ick! I won't eat that!"

Young people often won't try new foods simply because of the way the food looks or because of a preconceived idea about the ingredient of a dish. Explain to students that just because something is unfamiliar doesn't automatically make it distasteful. Read It's Disgusting and We Ate It to spark conversation about how food tastes can change over time. Ask students if there is a food they initially didn't like but grew to enjoy and why their opinions changed. Discuss how to manage emotions associated with new or untested experiences. Ask them how they might feel if someone exclaimed that their favorite food was gross or that their cultural tradition was strange.

Not liking a particular ingredient or dish is a preference and can be expressed without putting down another’s tastes or traditions. While students cannot be forced to eat anything, encourage them to try ingredients and dishes introduced in the class. Discuss with youth how they can respond when there is a dish or ingredient that they are hesitant to try.

Consider including an agreement about this in the group's norms. For older youth, it might be: "We will each try all the ingredients and dishes that we make in order to fully participate in the communal cooking experience and to learn about new countries, cultures and traditions. We will share our opinions about the food in respectful ways."

For younger youth, it might be: "We agree to try all foods prepared in this group." When tasting foods, have students initially defer statements beginning with " like…" or "I dislike…" and first describe their experience. Provide some sentence starters like, "I noticed that…," "I smell…," "The texture is…," or "It feels like…." The goal here is to defer judgment and increase youth's ability to describe food through their senses and increase all students' food-related vocabulary.

Lack of Time and 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.

Additional Resources

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!

By Heather Loewecke
A version of this article was also published on Education Week.