Maximize Nutrition by Making it Meaningful for Families


Written by Linda Handel, RDCD

When you think of family reunions and other family celebrations, what is the first thing you think about? Perhaps your Aunt Mary’s favorite potato dish or maybe the dish that has been passed down from generation to generation or it may be the traditional prayer that is said or a family song that is sung.

Food connects us all. Food is central to culture and to family traditions, and when it comes to health and nutrition, culture also plays a significant role. Beliefs about the cause and treatment of illness, as well as how to stay healthy vary between cultures and between families. This can influence the role that physical activity and nutrition play in the life of a family. Early care and education professionals are in a position to help meet the needs and improve the health and nutrition of the children and families they serve. The key to maximizing efforts is using a culturally competent and relevant approach.

Learning a culturally competent approach is a process supported by various research models and themes helping to define it. For a provider, it comes down to learning to engage families in authentic conversations by asking open-ended questions, listening carefully, speaking respectfully, and involving families when providing care and education.

To effectively support children and their families in making healthier food choices and improve health outcomes that still align with their values, its important to understand their food habits, preferences and practices. Begin by exploring these elements by asking questions out of genuine curiosity. Remember that in the best conversations, we take turns disclosing information and asking questions without the expectation of a certain answer. By suspending all assumptions, a meaningful conversation can take place. Here are a few questions that can help to begin conversations:

  • What are your family’s favorite foods and what foods do you commonly eat?
  • What foods does your family typically shop for? Where do you find your favorite and
  • frequently-eaten foods?
  • Tell me about the experience of preparing food in your family. Who is involved? How
  • are foods prepared?
  • What are mealtimes like for your family?
  • How would you describe the role of food in your family’s life? Does it play a role in
  • health? And if so, which foods contribute most to your health? Do you have any
  • favorite remedies that you use when you are sick? What are they?
  • Tell me about the best days of the year for your family. Are these holidays? What role does food play in those special occasions? Who do you share these times with?
  • Tell me about your family’s experience in trying new foods.

As you engage in these cross-cultural exchanges, you can then adapt your intended health and nutrition messages, for example the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Let’s Move Child Care health strategies, or your own nutrition policies, into messages that will resonate with families.

You may need to make adjustments as needed to make them appropriate for the families you serve. It may be helpful to first test your idea with a few family members or with a committee. For example, if you have families with specific religious beliefs or practices, discuss possible food options to achieve the best nutrition possible for their child.

Enjoy your cultural nutrition exploration! The journey is one which you will reap the benefits of improved communication, pleasure in promoting good health and maximizing early childhood nutrition!

References & Additional Resources
1. Cultural Competence and Health, Instructor’s guide
2. National Center for Cultural Competence
3. USDA FNS Core Messages, pg.16

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