A few weeks ago I got a powerful craving for chocolate chip cookies, and realized that I hadn’t baked any for nearly a year. How did I go a year without baking chocolate chip cookies? I’ve been baking sachertorte, baklava, pionono, pavlova, and other international treats instead. For the last year, my kids and I have been studying a different country every week. I tried this project once about six years ago when my kids were much younger, but this time around has worked better since they are older and more excited about participating.
I created a list of fifty countries, trying to include a good variety from all parts of the world, as well as those we have specific family connections to. We devoted one day a week to each country, usually Sunday, but sometimes Saturday depending on our schedule. Sunday nights are when we are all at home and have time to cook together. Generally we would read some books about the country, cook a meal with traditional food, and maybe watch some videos online. When we had a family movie night on Saturday, I tried to find a movie from or about the country we were studying (I’m planning to write a follow-up post about watching foreign films next month). Sometimes our country study blended into our Family Home Evening time and we would watch “I’m a Mormon” videos from different countries or discuss different religions (like the time we found some interesting online videos from the Armenian Apostolic Church). More than anything, learning about other countries and cultures opened the door for discussions about a number of different topics. We’ve discussed the merits of different styles of government, different religious practices, how geography affects the culture of countries, colonialism, languages, clothing, sports (we now have a family joke about ‘futbol’ because nearly every country besides the U.S. lists soccer as a favorite sport), and so much more.
Everything I used for our project came from my local library or the internet. I’m blessed to live in a city with a library that has a large collection of children’s materials. I really like juvenile nonfiction because it makes things easy to read; there are often quite a few easy international cookbooks in the food section and basic introductions to countries in the geography section. Picture books can usually be found in the library catalog by doing a keyword search for the name of the country, then limiting to children’s books. If your catalog searching skills need some help, ask a librarian and they will be happy to help you. There are also good resources online, especially for recipes and other cultural information. I found wonderful food and culture blogs for most countries, and especially liked those written by people living in America who had good tips on finding the right ingredients for traditional dishes here in the United States. With both books and online resources, don’t forget to check both the date and the publisher to make sure the information is current and reliable. There are also quite a few good books out there that compare different countries in visual ways for kids (and adults); some of my favorites are Children Just Like Me, Hungry Planet and Material World. If you don’t have a large world map for your wall it’s not too hard to find a good one that doesn’t cost very much. Try checking your local teachers supply store or bookstore. You can also print out flags to color here.
Some weeks have been more of a success than others; not every recipe we tried turned out, and even the ones that did go well sometimes didn’t please everyone (one unnamed child thinks rice noodles feel like worms and refuses to ever try them again). A number of my friends have expressed interest in embarking on a similar project, but so far none have tried it. To them, and all my other readers, I say don’t worry too much about it. This worked well for my family because I love geography, books, and cooking. I am envious sometimes of my friends who do other family projects like going on a certain number of hikes per summer, running in races, or participating in community theater. The most important lesson I learned from this past year is that it is fun to set family goals and to learn together (and if you don’t have kids, try getting together a group of friends for a project). We had such a great time learning and eating as a family that my kids have now decided we need to spend the next year learning about all fifty states in the United States. I sure hope one of them has designated chocolate chip cookies as an official state food.