Beyond dolls: Multicultural play through food

I’ve been searching lately for multicultural toys that aren’t doll-centric, as my 2-year-old son isn’t particularly fond of dolls or action figures. He is, however, fascinated by food (even if, like many toddlers, he’ll go on at least one hunger strike each week), so I went looking for multicultural play centered around food. Here are some of the more interesting items I turned up–stuff you don’t see everyday, but that could spark some interesting conversations. After each item, I’m listing some ideas for multicultural play.

The Kids’ Multicultural Cookbook: Food & Fun Around the World : The School Library Journal offers this review of this cookbook:

“In this whirlwind tour of 41 countries, readers are given a quick dose of culture from each one. There are one or two recipes (their difficulty is rated by one, two, or three spoons) for each place and an introduction to a child who lives there. Occasional riddles and “fun facts” are inserted, such as the world record for watermelon-seed spitting. Foreign words are included with pronunciations. Readers are encouraged to try home-baked tortilla chips, ginger ale made from ginger root, and peanut butter soup. The writing style is breezy and inviting, and the illustrations are a combination of black-and-white cartoons and photographs.”

I’m kind of awkward in the kitchen, so a cookbook targeted at kids is just about my speed. I haven’t been able to flip through this book myself, but I have seen other books in the Multicultural Kids series, and they’re definitely worth the purchase price.

The Multicultural Cookbook for Students : The School Library Journal has this to say:

This is the reference tool librarians have longed for-a single volume that presents dishes from 122 nations. Albyn and Webb have organized their book into seven sections devoted to countries that share similar cooking styles and traditions. Each begins with a bit of general data about the country or region with emphasis on the foods grown and prepared there, cooking utensils, and a tiny bit about the culture of the people. Recipes are introduced with specific information about their country of origin, especially its food production and general dietary practices. The number of servings, a clear and complete list of ingredients, equipment needed, and step-by-step directions are included. Serving suggestions are provided, but there is no nutritional breakdown. Kitchen procedures are briefly discussed with the essentials for safety and health covered. One drawback is that even though the book is addressed specifically to young people, it has no pictures other than outline maps showing the location of the country discussed. Nonetheless, it is a useful, practical, one-stop source guide to the world’s favorite foods.

Multicultural Cookbook of Life-Cycle Celebrations: The idea for this cookbook is terrific. Instead of offering decontextualized recipes from around the world, the author tells us about the different cultural milestones being celebrated or otherwise marked by the preparation and consumption of this food. The book contains more than 500 recipes.

The American Ethnic Cookbook For Students: Of this book, Booklist says,

Because of the continuing flow of immigrants into the U.S, almost nothing edible can any longer be considered foreign to these shores. Each immigrant group has brought its culture with its baggage, and culture usually means cooking habits. Mark Zanger has produced a comprehensive guide documenting each immigrant band’s contributions to American cooking. Even some of the tiniest, least-known groups find a place at the table here: Estonians, Nigerians, Gypsies, and Macedonians, to name just a handful. For each immigrant group, Zanger gives a historical introduction and then a few sample recipes. Recipes strive to be authentic without resorting to ingredients unavailable in reasonably comprehensive supermarkets. This practical, useful reference book is a boon to any teacher seeking tasty ways to induce students to celebrate ethnic diversity, and Zanger’s annotated bibliography adds still more value to his efforts.

This book offers the opportunity to talk with your children about how cuisines change when they migrate–different foods are available in different parts of the world, and people’s tastes may change as they are exposed to other cultures’ foods. This book might also spark a discussion of where the foods your child eats are grown–along with a discussion of the environmental impact of the shipping of that food to the supermarket. You also might talk about your family’s own culinary history; how much does what you eat hew to “authentic” cuisine from the countries from which your family came?

There’s also a whole series of cookbooks titled Cooking the _______ Way, e.g. Cooking the Thai Way, Cooking the Russian Way. Try this Amazon search to find them.

Play food
Multicultural bread set: This item features mostly American and Western European breads, but it still might spark some interesting discussions with your children about how bread is made and consumed around the world. If your children are interested in the environment, you could segue into conversations about how grains are grown and used. Recent discussions around corn are particularly interesting; see, for example, Michael Pollan’s book (for adults) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

Multicultural Play Foods, Set of 13: This set includes a hot dog and bun, pizza, spaghetti with sauce, croissant, taco, flan, Spanish rice, egg roll, fried dumpling, big bun, and salmon sushi. Again, here’s an opportunity to talk to your children about how different foods are made, and why ingredients vary from culture to culture.

Along the same lines are Super Sushi, this set of Hispanic play foods, Chinese take-out play food, this awesome sushi set by quality toy makers Melissa and Doug, and the “Multicultural Tub o’ Grub.”

The most important thing is not that you purchase these specialty toys–after all, you could cut photos of them out of the newspaper or magazines, print them out from the web, or draw or sculpt them with your child–but that you talk with your kids about why different cultures eat different foods: the relative plenitude or scarcity of resources (e.g. grains, fertile soil, water), available methods of harvest (mechanical or by hand), the ways food is disseminated (e.g. barter, communal farming, farmer’s markets, or supermarkets), beliefs about the relative nutrition of different foods, and folk beliefs about foods being, for example, lucky or more likely to produce twins if eaten by a woman who wants to have babies.


  1. Nice article, thanks for the sushi sets, I’ll have to pick one up. I saw these at a local teacher shop:|searchResults~~p|LM366~~f|/Assortments/Lakeshore/ShopByCategory/dramaticplay/viewall.jsp

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