It was very important to my husband and I that our children learned about other ways of living than our own. As they get older (there are four of them that range in age from 9 to 14 years old), we also wanted to create time and space to be with each other, to do things as a family. We decided to establish a monthly ritual: The Passport Dinner.
Once a month, we select a country (with input from the kids). I research cuisine that is common for that area. We put on a pretty elaborate feast; we reason it is cheaper to splurge on a big meal at home than it is to go to a restaurant with four kids. This is our “restaurant” meal. For Ghana, we had drinks, two main courses, a side dish, and dessert.
The kids get involved as well. We made “passports” by folding paper into booklets — my son’s idea. The kids decorated their booklets to look like passports using an example they found on the web. For each country, they look up the flag and draw a picture of the flag for that month’s country in their passport booklet. This gives them a little creative outlet, and they all seem to like it.
Then, they research the country. I use this as an opportunity to help them develop better research skills. I give advice, or give suggestions about which aspects to research. They look up tourist information, famous natives, and common crops. They each develop mini presentations to share at dinner.
The children also help prepare the meal. Some are more eager helpers than others — my youngest is quite the little chef and is often an active participant in the actual meal preparation. Others, like our oldest, are more interested in the eating than anything and only helps out if pressed. Some of my fondest memories are of our times in the kitchen preparing these dinners. We play music (from the country we are “traveling” to if we can find it!), we tease each other, and we work our way through the recipes.
So far, we’ve been to Iceland, The U.K., the Czech Republic, Russia, Jamaica, Argentina, Cuba, Ghana, Malaysia, and Turkey. We do not always love the meals: the kids are not eager to visit Iceland any time soon. Others are delicious, and become part of our regular diet. There was a salad, kisir, from Turkey that my husband and me now eat for lunch almost daily during the summer months.
Beyond diversifying our dinner repertoire, the Passport Dinners have meant a lot to our family. The kids get excited about them, and usually, these are some of the most peaceful days in our house. With all of the puberty we have going on at once, peaceful days are rare and precious.
The kids have developed stronger research skills — the youngest is learning how to modify her search terms if the original search results are not exactly satisfying. Some of the earlier presentations were real snoozers (sorry kiddos). They would take turns dryly listing facts about the country of the day, including the population, the square mileage, and the GNP. Now, they look up historical facts, must-see landmarks, and what people do in that country.
I like to think that our experiences with the Passport Dinners have helped them develop their curiosity towards the world around them. We talk about why people eat different things in different parts of the world. They know that hearty stews with root vegetables were common in Russian and Czech dishes because of the climate, and that bananas and plantains feature more prominently in Cuba and Jamaica for the same reason. They know that lychee jelly — an ingredient that was strange and unpleasant for them — is as common for natives of Malaysia as grape jelly is for Americans.
For my husband and I, this lesson was the goal: we wanted them to get a sense of relativism, to get the notion that what seems “normal” to them sometimes only seems that way because of where they are in the world. The delicious meals and peaceful family time are just bonuses.