How important is it that kids learn to eat their ethnic foods? How do we get them to?

by Carolyn Koh
September 25, 2018

This summer’s hit rom-com Crazy Rich Asians had a lot of people talking about Asian American culture and how generational values are retained…or rejected. In one scene, Rachel Chu, the main character, joined her friend Peik-Lin’s family in Singapore for dinner. The spread was impressive with many classic Chinese dishes like whole lobster, chicken rice, and yong tau foo. But at one point during the humorous sequence, Peik-Lin’s father stopped to tell her younger sisters to eat their chicken nuggets. Not noodles, not dumplings – chicken nuggets.

Like many immigrant groups, Asian Americans impart many of our cultural practices and values through food. Special recipes accompanied by family stories are often (repeatedly) shared at family gatherings and celebrations. At the same time, I’ve also sensed the embarrassment from some parents about how little Tommy or Grace won’t eat this weird vegetable and that smelly tofu. Instead, they want those nuggets. Inevitably, the hosting family would have a separate plate for the “fussy eaters.”

Teaching kids to eat ethnic foods isn’t simply about diet. It is a desire to foster stronger connections to our far-flung families, to impart shared values, and to have commonality with the generations that have come before. So how do we teach our kids to eat ethnic foods in a world where the daycare and elementary-school menus are chock full of pizza, chicken nuggets, sandwiches, mac n cheese, and hotdogs?

The only answer is hard work and modeling. It is deliberately making ethnic meals as much as possible, choosing Dim Sum over pancakes for breakfast, serving sweet mochi balls as a treat instead of ice cream, fruit instead of candy.

For years I observed my cousin, determined to have her kids learn to eat Chinese, pack lunches every day to send with her kids to daycare. They were allowed to eat the snacks provided – where the “one bite policy” became a mantra for new foods they were introduced to – but lunch was strictly from home. She did careful research and shopped for the best thermos type flasks to keep food warm. She and her husband also did extra cooking on the weekends to have enough leftovers for school lunches that they could freeze and reheat, like a pan of soy sauce marinated chicken or dumplings.

When I babysat the children, they told me how their parents made their lunches. “First you boil water, and then you pour it in to heat up the flask.” When done properly, their meals were still warm at lunch time. As my cousin shared, it was hard at first, but soon became routine. The parents themselves also liked to pack lunches for work and they simply got used to cooking larger portions.

These days, the kids are in middle and high school. They still bring their own lunches as they much prefer Mum and Dad’s cooking to anything the school serves. The boy actually loves “Phoenix claws” (braised chicken feet) at Dim Sum restaurants which tickles his grandmother to death as it’s also one of her favorite Dim Sum dishes. Having this connection to her thoroughly Americanized grandchildren is a bragging point among her friends, and she even has a photograph of the two of them to tucking into the dish (from the family’s last visit to the “homeland”) to show.

Of course, there are always caveats to anecdotal tales like these. Ultimately, as they get older, children do decide what they want to eat. I present another cousin who did the same with her kids, but one of the three had his own idea of what was good food and seemed to subsist on plain rice and noodles until he was a teenager. His tastes finally blossomed then but he still does not enjoy strongly flavored foods. However, as proven by the many articles and published books on the topic, it can be done.

If French kids eat everything, so can our kids and if chicken nuggets aren’t in our ethnic diet, they should not have to be served at our tables.