Open thread: Food culture

What kind of food culture represents the US? What is the “food” legacy are we leaving for our kids? What foods are part of your (American) culture? Do you incorporate ethnic foods? How do you involve your kids?

Thanksgiving is my favorite food holiday. I think it’s safe to say that turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and sweet potatoes are part of the American food culture. Also regional parts of the country have specialties (Northeast – clam chowder; Louisiana – Cajun and Creole; and on…). For more info: Cuisine of the United States

Does a food culture of burgers, hot dogs, fries, etc represent the US accurately? And why do we feed that to kids at school?

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68 thoughts on “Open thread: Food culture

  1. I grew up in New England eating a variety of foods I associate with that region: boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, peas, squash, carrots, salads, apples, grilled cheese sandwiches. (I don't eat meat.) Hamburgers and hot dogs were standard at fairs or barbecues, but these were only for special occasions. I'm sure the story of how these foods became the norm is long and interesting….

  2. As an Australian who has holidayed in the US twice, my impression is that horrendous food DOES comprise much of the "American" diet. I wish you all the best in your efforts to make a difference, yet can see it must be an uphill battle …

  3. I'm Canadian but it's very apparent as soon as we cross the US border the difference in restaurants. Although my husband likes burgers we eat a lot of stuff from scratch. Most of the people I know would rather have a nice curry or seafood dim sum than eat hot dogs. I don't know many people that don't enjoy sushi and thai either. Maybe it's because we don't have to go far to try different foods, and we've gotten used to the choices. Although I wasn't taught to cook by my mom (which I think is a big problem nowadays) I had enough interest in it to learn myself. It's cheaper and tastier! My daughter is 18 months old and she loves many different kinds of foods.

    Working in the states soon might be a reality for us, and we both agreed we would send her with lunches if she goes to school there. (husband went to American school for a bit) Now that I've read your blog I worry if she'll be getting enough exercise there too. There has been a history of diabetes and high blood pressure in her dad's side of the family which has been stopped before her father through diet and exercise.

    I was totally shocked when I read your school doesn't have recess! How do kids get out enough energy to sit still in class? At 10:30 we got 25 minutes of recess with a snack, and then an HOUR at lunch, 15-20 minutes to eat and the other 40-45 minutes to run around. We also got gym twice a week. Everyone brought lunches from home except once a month we had one hot dog or hamburger or pizza day. By taking out play time are the kids getting more learning or less?

  4. As a teacher in the UK, I have eaten school lunch every single day for the past three years. I have NEVER had an unenjoyable meal.

    Reading this website, there are two things I cannot get past:

    1. The lack of 'real family meals' – or at least what I would class as them. I have NEVER eaten chicken nuggets, nachos, burgers, hot dogs etc. as part of my school meal. I have also never eaten a 'pre-packed' snack (chips, fruit cups, jell-o or cookies etc.) although admittedly my school does sell fat-free yogurt that comes 'pre-packed'. All our meals, including desserts are hand-made in the kitchens that morning.

    2. Why don't people eat off plates? My school has kids from grades 6 through to high school seniors and EVERYONE eats off a plate, with a knife and fork. Unless they choose to eat a sandwich.

    I'm impressed by your commitment but I ENJOY eating my school lunch every day 🙂

    – Definitely NOT fed up with lunch

  5. i try to serve a variety of foods, american, asain, mexican, italian and on the rare occasions we eat out i try to find something we don't often eat to try. i've been allowing my daughter to help me in the kitchen since she was tall enough to see over the counter, and to show her that making things from scratch is fun, because while i'm not a nutritionist and don't count calories i try to avoid too many additives and preservatives in food. now that she is almost 11 she asks for specific tasks when cooking, like breaking eggs, that she thinks is fun. her newest fascination is watching me beat egg whites when we make homemade waffles. i'm hoping that she will grow up loving to cook, and end up passing it on to her children.

  6. I visited my family last week, and since my mother is retiring this year after 35 years of public school teaching, I went for the final time to watch her teach a lesson and have lunch with her. This little ritual has much more to do with family relations than any nostalgia I have for school lunch. In fact, this time, I couldn't find anything to eat at all. The choice was between a hot dog with chili and pepperoni pizza. I passed on both. My only other option was a pre-packaged salad that laughably contained no cucumbers, tomatoes, pulses, legumes, or cottage cheese. It was only iceberg lettuce and some grated carrots. On the side was a small cup of cheese and a small cup of ham. (So, pork for all three selections? Someone should point out that not everyone eats pork out of religious objections.)

    As much as I wish that it were true, the US is not alone in over-indulging in junk food. However, I wouldn't wish for my worst enemy to eat the slop served the day I was there. I know that my personal favorites would probably not be a crowd pleaser with the 12-14 year old crowd, but a hot dog with chili is not a sufficient meal. Fried and breaded chicken nuggets or nachos with chili and cheese are NOT meals. They are junk foods that can certainly be enjoyed guilt free occasionally, but they cannot take the place of a meal five days a week. A fruit cup is not fruit, and lettuce with ham is not a salad. I think some modifications could be made that wouldn't increase costs massively and could provide other benefits. For example, I worked in a French school one year. Students were provided with a main dish (usually chicken or beef) or a vegetable main course, a cheese, a piece of fruit, and unlimited trips to a salad bar. My food there was slightly more expensive than what kids pay in my mother's school. On the plus side, the meat is recognizable as a meat, the potatoes are just as likely to be boiled as fried, and salad bar selections were generally quite good. On French-German friendship day, they provided us with a German style roast beef and an attempt at a Black Forest Gateau. (It tasted French and not German, but at least they tried.) Naturally the students preferred a slice of greasy pizza or a kebab with fries on the weekend, but at school they were provided a proper meal. And they ate it.

    Would it be too hard to extend the salad bar a bit? This region of North Carolina produces squash and apples in abundance. Why do the children not eat any at school?

    To the posters on the board from the UK, Australia, and Canada, I would ask that you don't pretend that your countries are beacons of health. They are not. I think we all need to get behind Jamie Oliver's push to improve school lunch without saying it is only an American problem.

  7. Mrs Q, I am really enjoying your blog. Thanks for raising awareness on this subject — you have started something big!
    I have so much to add to this post:
    1) A co-worker of mine from the middle east once described american food culture as something worse than animal feed.
    2) I have 2 young children (ages 5 and 3) and I want them to enjoy food, because how can one enjoy food if they are only exposed to chicken nuggets and french fries. My husband and I do the following to achieve this: limit candy/sweets/desserts to special occasions, cook at home from scratch nearly exclusively, buy local and/or organic produce, when eating out don't eat from the kids meal. For example, my children eat spinach pie, grape leaves, and stir fry.
    3) As others have commented — processed, packaged, and fast food is full of preservatives and who know what else. A few years ago we made an effort to cut it all out of our diet. Because we don't eat fast food (except when traveling) my kids really don't like it — they like the toys and the play sets, but not the food so much. Recently, I picked up an easter candy while out shopping (one I used to love). I took one bite and didn't bother to finish it. It had no flavor other than being overly sweet. I think people just get used to eating the foods they eat.
    4) Finally, I am proud that my kids know and love their food. Last year, while visiting a farmers market while traveling we visited with a baker. He asked my then 4 year old daughter what fruit was in the baked goods. When she correctly answered cranberries he was impressed! He said he has heard kids at the farmers market calling yellow summer squash bananas. There is something wrong with that situation!
    Looking forward to future posts!

  8. I agree with many here that the American food culture is "cheap and convenient". That seems to be what most people care about. It's so sad.

    Our family cut out processed foods over a year ago, and the difference in our health is amazing! We cook real food at home most of the time. Tonight my 2 year old son happily ate his roasted beet and goat cheese salad, and panini with prosciutto, spinach, red onion and fontina cheese. He's gone through picky phases, but he has never had a choice of junk food at home. Recently it has been wonderful, because he is eating just about everything he is served. We never force him to eat anything, but he doesn't get any other options when he refuses what is served for dinner. We sit at the table and eat a family dinner, and our son is thriving.

    Kids will eat what they are exposed to, and if that is continuously fast food, pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and other processed, chemical filled crap… then American children are in for lives filled with many chronic health conditions, infertility, and disease. It's sickening!!!!!

  9. My child is very young and not in public school yet. However daycares and preschools do have lunch program as well. I will *not* let my child eat that because a) he's allergic to a common side and is too little to really understand the consequences of eating it b) it's garbage. I pack his lunch and he eats lots of extremely healthy food.

    I became against school lunch back when I was in school and saw the lunchladies preparing their 'specialty' of shepherd's pie. They collected the food waste from previous lunches in trashbins, mashed it up into pans, added a layer of potato flake, heated and served.

  10. I grew up in California during the advent of what was called "california cuisine" – fresh, local, seasonal ingredients put together deliciously. Now I think lots of areas of the country have similar regional cuisines – I live in the Pacific Northwest now and we have our own regional cuisine that can be healthy and delicious. We even have a local fast food chain that is real food, uses local produce, and has seasonal specialties like sweet potato fries.

    That said…. I don't choose to have my school-aged kid eat school lunch. I make something for him every day – it's boring but it's real food and it only takes about 5 minutes – usually a sandwich + some raw fruits and raw veggies.

    He is a somewhat picky eater, but I involve him in our food in several ways: sometimes he helps me plan menus for the week. (Much of the time I prefer to cook on the fly rather than with menus.) Also, he has a special book in which he writes his own invented recipes, almost all soup made of seasonal produce. We also have two of Mollie Katzen's wonderful cookbooks: _Salad People_ and _Honest Pretzels_. And he's always loved to help me cook by reading the recipes to me. And both our kids have their own garden plot as well – they're often willing to eat stuff fresh from the garden that they don't like in other settings – for example, my son won't touch frozen peas, but loves them from the garden. He grows arugula so he can eat it small and fresh. Basic for pesto. Lots of good stuff.

    One other complaint: Kids menus at many restaurants! We noticed it first when we were traveling in New Zealand, and most restaurants, for whatever cuisine, had the SAME menu for kids – mostly involving non-food chicken strips! Ick!

  11. Yeah, we should start thinking about all of our aspects of our culture. I mean do we really want people thinking of america as the fast food country? We should start cooking more and delve into the richness that is American Cusine.

  12. When my kids were in school in Washington State, I was appalled with the fact that if they forgot to take their lunch, the only provision the school system would allow was peanut butter on bread, no jelly! I am so proud of a member of the system attempting to help these poor kids. My Son has a good memory of school lunches. He thanked me because he never had to eat it!!!!

  13. Our daughter's charter school serves only vegetarian meals and the chef tries to source as much organic or locally grown food as possible. The food costs are higher than they wood be in a mainstream public high school. I volunteer in the kitchen and a lot of the time, if the lunch doesn't incorporate cheese or pasta, the kids don't want to know about it.

    In our house we eat some vegetarian and some carnivore meals, our child is one of the most adventurous eaters in her school.

    Bottom line, food culture begins at home.

    Bottom line, food culture begins at home.

  14. As a 14-year old, I can testify that when my peers learn of my strong Czech food culture, they are shocked. All family gatherings include at least on Czech meal, and I can't imagine it any other way. I worry that ethnic food culture is disappearing and that food no longer has meaning. In my midwestern home, hamburgers and hotdogs are restricted to summer evenings with friends. When food loses its associated memories, it is not nearly as delicious.

  15. I agree with those who say that the US cannot be summed up in a single "food culture." I'm the only child of a northern Jewish father and a southern mother. So I was raised on "ethnic" (Jewish) foods, as well as southern traditions. My parents have always been very experimental with foods, and I was exposed to Moroccan, Norwegian, authentic Italian and Chinese, and all sorts of other cuisines. We also traveled extensively around the US and Caribbean, and always sought out local restaurants with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. As a young adult, I moved to New Orleans and discovered the world of Cajun and Creole food.

    These days I travel full-time (travel writer living in an RV). Sometimes we stay in international hostels. At the hostels, we frequently cook communal meals, with each person contributing a little bit of his/her own culture/flavor profiles.

    Most of my experiences have been with people who think and eat like I do…I'll be the first to admit that I love a good, juicy (even greasy!) cheeseburger or a piece of double chocolate cake. But I, and those I know, do it in moderation.

    Then I spent time with my cousin and her husband last fall. They've never met a vegetable they like. They eat fast food constantly. We made the mistake of taking them to Cat Cora's new restaurant at Downtown Disney. They hated the menu, ordered plain steak, and asked the waiter what the salad dressing choices were (at an upscale Greek restaurant!!). Their all-time favorite "luxury" restaurant is the Olive Garden. And they have two young daughters that they're raising to eat the same way.

    Sadly, it is true that there is a certain segment of the American population that eats the equivalent of those school lunches every day. But I can't believe that it's actually the majority, or that all of those kids would reach for those choices if they had been taught anything else.

  16. I think there are a lot of elements of our culture at play here, the combination of which results in our current "hot dog/hamburger culture." First of all, there is the ever growing need for instant gratification, mostly influenced by the internet. You can see its mark on food culture by the increasing trend to make things "fast" and "easy" (from no brainers like mcdonalds to more subtle things like rachel ray). Second of all, the way food is produced in this country is totally bonkers. I don't think I have to go into detail about the havoc wrecked by our government subsidizing things like corn and soybeans, everyone here seems to be very well read on that. Third, there has been a trend of treating children like complete dummies, and not letting them make conscious decisions for themselves. There is this assumption that they will always pick the fries, or the chicken fingers, or the chips, so we should never offer them an alternative. Kids should eat everything adults eat, or at least try. Kids today are totally overstimulated with benign things like tv, movies…in any case, there are a lot of things that need to change before something as simple as a good, healthy lunch can be available for our children.

  17. Yes, it's true that we want convenience food. We want food to be made quickly, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is possible to make food quickly and healthily. After living in India for 7 months, I really appreciate that our culture wants food that takes little time to cook. Women here spend most of the day cooking. They get up early before work to cook breakfast and lunch for the day. Yes they use very little prepackaged food, but there are far fewer working women in India. Instead of criticizing our desire for fast food, why not figure out ways to make more nutritious fast food options. Because moms don't need more guilt when they are already working and taking care of kids!

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