Food and Holiday Traditions as a Means of Engagement


What role do schools and youth-serving organizations play in supporting children’s mental and emotional health around the holiday season? Author Kiyah Duffey provides us the latest insight into family engagement, traditions and the connection to food. 

Topics Covered:

  • Role Models
  • Staff Development
  • Engagement

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In an era of political correctness and due to concern over drawing attention to religious differences a need to keep religious life separate from education in many school districts, it is sometimes difficult to know what role schools and youth-serving organizations can play in supporting children’s mental and emotional health around the holiday season.  Emerging research on family and student engagement and the importance of supporting cultural diversity provides some clues.

Importance of Family Engagement 

There is growing consensus that children with involved families are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, enroll in higher-level programs, have more regular attendance, and go on to higher education1-2. At the elementary level, there is even evidence that family involvement is associated with improved behavior and better social skills3-4. The growing resilience research has also identified many protective factors including social connectedness between families and schools, staff and students, and among students, that promote positive outcomes in the face of adversity5-6.

Family engagement may be particularly important for immigrant families whose children can face additional challenges adapting to school and who may not have the same social resources – connections to school, the community, and to the larger society – in their new country as they did back home. Providing culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate methods for family and student engagement will help reduce isolation and foster inclusion.

Use Food to Foster Connection

In many parts of the world, and especially around important (national and international) holidays, food is an integral part of defining and creating one’s culture. Like other traditions, food traditions tie us together, are passed from generation to generation within families, and they connect us to the broader society in which we live7-8. Although less is known about the role that food traditions, specifically, play in the process of socialization or acculturation, there is some evidence to suggest that fostering such connections may lead to positive, life-long habits. People who feel a sense of connection to their past are more likely to make decisions that will help to preserve their future12; thus feeling connected to the way that your grandmother made her “famous” collard greens, fattoush, or pasta e fagioli means that young people may be more likely to want to preserve those traditions. Additionally, a recent study with African American families found that families taught children to value activities that combine quality time and enjoying food together9. And as Alice Waters said, “It’s around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.”

The Role for Schools & Youth-Serving Organizations

Traditions, although focused on families, can be fostered by organizations that serve young people. Here’s how:

  • Bring together students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds and have them talk about their food traditions; share some of these foods with each other.
  • Carefully examine your own cultural beliefs, history, and traditions. Think about what they mean to you and be willing to share that with your students. Use food as a way to share these traditions.
  • Ask students to share their own food traditions – either from their family or broader culture. 
  • If you have a relatively homogenous study body, explore the role of food in other cultures. Connect America’s food culture to those from around the world: talk about how foods were transformed when they came to America, or when they went elsewhere.
  • Create theme weeks during the holiday season and all year long. In each of these weeks, encourage exploration of the historical roots of various cultural traditions, food or otherwise.
  • Create a “world tour” of various traditions, foods, or cultures in your classroom and have students be tourists for the day.
  • Use technology and social media – like GoogleMaps, Twitter, and Skype – to supplement these food and tradition exploration experiences by connecting to places, schools, or students in other parts of the world.


Resources & Notes:

  1. Fisher, D. Meaningful Family Engagement Means Benefits for Youth. (2014) Bolster Collaborative Practice Brief 17. Retrieved 12/7/14 at http://bolstercollaborative.com/practice-brief
  2. Henderson AT, Mapp KL. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Retrieved 1/27/14 at http://www.sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf.
  3. Epstein M, Atkins M, Cullinan D, Kutash K, & Weaver R. (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved 1/27/14 at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide.aspx?sid=4.
  4. ChildTrends Data Bank (2013). Parental Involvement in Schools: Indicators on Children and Youth. Retrieved 1/24/14 at http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=parental-involvement-in-schools.
  5. Longfellow S. (2014) Helping Young People Thrive: What We Are Learning from Resilience Research. Bolster Collaborative Practice Brief 24. Retrieved 12/6/14 at http://bolstercollaborative.com/practice-brief
  6. Child Trends. (2013). What can schools do to build resilience in their students? Retrieved 12/5/14 at http://www.childtrends.org/what-can-schools-do-to-build-resilience-in-their-students/
  7. Rivers BC. (2013) Merging Symbols, Space and Identity in Appalachia: An Examination of the Ramp. Master’s Thesis. Retrieved 12/8/14 at http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/23315
  8. Anderson EN. (2014) Everyone Eats: understanding Food and Culture , 2nd ed. NYU Press. ISBN: 0814789161, 9780814789162
  9. Brown NA, Thornton RL, Smith KC, Surkan PJ, Levine DM. "It's like big mama's house": examining extended family influences on the dietary behaviors of African American children. Ecol Food Nutr. 2014;53(2):149-70. doi: 10.1080/03670244.2013.806914.


Writer: Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD, is the Director of Global Scientific Affairs at LA Sutherland Group and adjunct faculty in Human Nutrition at Virginia Tech. She is a contributor to Smart Eating for Kids and Mind Positive Parenting, where she writes about how parents can use the latest nutrition science to promote healthy feeding and eating practices in their kids. She is a regular contributor to the Practice Briefs series.


This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of youth development practice.



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