Connect Across Cultures

Culture is both the summation and the expression of experiences, beliefs, and practices, as well as traditions passed down and adaptations to new environments or experiences.

Culture in the Cooking Matters classroom is representative of the cross-cultural nature of America.   Each diverse culture in your classroom is something your group can celebrate and embrace in order to bring about understanding and acceptance of the concepts presented.

To connect across cultures your goal is to discover the context in which a participant or fellow volunteer lives. As a Cooking Matters volunteer teaching about food and nutrition, we ask you to think about the relationship between culture and food and encourage you to learn more about the cultures of participants without making assumptions or judgments.  Culture is often not obvious by looking at someone and culture is just one factor that influences how we live our lives.  For example, the individual who leads a household is determined by more than culture – it can be based on personality, economics, or circumstance.  People from the same cultural backgrounds can have very different attitudes about many things – including food.

Connecting Across Cultures in Cooking Matters

Ask yourself: What is your most vivid food memory? A Thanksgiving feast? Eating ice cream on a hot summer day?  Being forced to eat Brussels sprouts? Trying a new food for the first time?

Culture and food are interconnected and though at times it may seem difficult to lead a group from another culture, Cooking Matters is designed to bridge cultural differences.  This is accomplished by including healthier versions of foods from many traditions, allowing people to learn through hands-on interaction, and recognizing that multiple factors affect food choices.  To help you successfully lead a multi-cultural group:


  • Learn about different cultures by visiting neighborhood markets or attending community events
  • Ask community leaders and cultural experts what they think you should know
  • Research traditional foods from various cultures and alternate ways to prepare them
  • Ask Cooking Matters staff about the group you’ll be working with

Establish common ground

  • Take time to establish common ground; food is a great way to start
  • Ask about favorite foods, different food uses (e.g., to promote health), and food experiences, especially about celebrations/traditions to get people to open up and start a dialogue in class
  • Tell your own food stories and let participants know if you’ve had experiences or challenges similar to theirs


  • Express interest–be curious and show a desire to understand the cultural background of your participants; let participants tell their own stories
  • Ask for participants’ input when planning recipes–some participants may want to learn how to make recipes from their culture in a healthier way, or learn more recipes from a different culture
  • Truly listen–be careful not to put words into their mouths; listen to what participants actually say in order to tailor your instruction to their needs
  • Don’t make assumptions about participants’ knowledge
  • Be alert to subtle differences in language; if you’re unsure what is meant, ask for more information or clarification

Follow participants’ leads

  • Be aware that participants may come with preconceived notions regarding certain foods and their roles. Ask questions to help guide your instruction and avoid misunderstandings
  • Respect personal space
  • Appreciate and use silence – reflecting on concepts and thinking in another language or cultural context takes time, so be patient during “pause time”

Adapt for English language learners

  • Learn to pronounce names properly
  • Learn key phrases and greetings in other languages
  • Watch for nonverbal clues
  • Restate and rephrase key concepts to ensure understanding
  • Ask open-ended questions: Ask them how they’ll apply the lesson this week.  Ask them what they learned.  Build confidence by reinforcing their understanding of what you taught
  • When working with an interpreter, be sure to speak to participants (rather than interpreter) in a clear and concise manner, and write out numbers. Remember that it will take longer, and that’s okay

Read THIS to learn more about how and why participants may eat certain foods 

Click HERE to practice what you’ve learned about communicating across cultures activity.

Seeking additional resources?

Check out the following book for more information:

Celebrating Diversity, Approaching Families Through Their Food, by Darby Graves and Carol Suiter, for the USDA/DHHS Nutrition Education Committee for Maternal and Child Health Nutrition Publications.

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