What are cultural foods?
Cultural foods — also called traditional dishes — represent the traditions, beliefs, and practices of a geographic region, ethnic group, religious body, or cross-cultural community. Cultural foods may involve beliefs about how certain foods are prepared or used. They may also symbolize a group’s overall culture. These dishes and customs are passed down from generation to generation.
Cultural foods may represent a region, such as pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce from Italy or kimchi, seaweed, and dim sum from Asia. Alternatively, they may represent a colonial past, such as the fusion of West African and East Indian food traditions throughout the Caribbean. Cultural foods may play a part in religious celebrations and are often at the core of our identities and familial connections.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans is one of the gold standards for nutrition guidelines in the West. It recommends meeting people where they are — including their cultural foodways.
The Canadian Food Guide also emphasizes the importance of culture and food traditions to healthy eating.
However, the field of dietetics still has a lot of work to do to ensure cultural competence, which is the effective and appropriate treatment of people without bias, prejudice, or stereotypes (3).
During my training to become a dietitian, cultural needs and food practices were acknowledged, but there was limited interest or practical application. In some instances, there were few institutional resources for healthcare professionals.
What does healthy eating really look like?
Healthy eating is loosely defined as the consumption of a variety of nutrients from dairy, protein foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables — what’s known in the United States as the five food groups.
The main message is that each food group provides essential vitamins and minerals needed to support good health. The USDA’s MyPlate, which replaced the food pyramid, illustrates that a healthy plate is half nonstarchy vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter grains .
However, the Caribbean is a melting pot of six food groups — staples (starchy, carb-rich foods), foods from animals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fats or oils .
Traditional one-pot dishes can’t always be distinctly portioned on a plate. Rather, the food groups are combined into a single dish.