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5 Picture Books To Build Compassion in the Lunchroom (and Beyond)

Children's books to build compassion through food

Help your child learn diversity, equality and inclusion through something everyone can agree on: delicious foods. Here are five kids’ books that celebrate cultures and cuisines from across the globe, what a fun way to build compassion in the lunchroom. 

Eating and sharing food with others should be joyful and celebratory. But if you’re a child of immigrants and your food doesn’t reflect that of the dominant culture, food and everything surrounding it can be rife with stress and anxiety. My partner, Ken Gamage, recounts the changes his family made to seem more “Canadian” when he was growing up, which included closing the curtains when they ate meals with their hands—a traditional practice in Sri Lanka. His mom didn’t even send him to school with Sri Lankan food, hoping his Canadianized lunch would help him fit in more. “Imagine bringing a curry into the classroom and the smells, texture, and colours that go along with it,” he said. “It feels intimate and vulnerable, like a little window into someone’s house.”

As an ally and white mom of two mixed-race kids, and a food industry professional, I was excited to come across Patricia Tanumihardja’s new children’s book, Ramen for Everyone. A project that began in 2014, the four-time cookbook author says it took nine years for this project to find a publisher—a “very significant” experience. Says Tanumihardja: “No one was interested in my story all those years ago, but the publishing industry has finally realized that we truly need diverse books for everyone.”

Collectively, can we help raise more compassionate kids by helping them understand what’s in each other’s’ lunch boxes? I’d like to think so. Here are my top-five picture books that showcase positive representations of different cultures and diverse main characters.

Compassion in the lunchroom

Ramen For Everyone by Patricia Tanumihardja

Every weekend, Hiro’s dad makes a bowl of perfect ramen from a recipe passed down to him from his dad. Hiro wants to make his own perfect ramen, just like his dad and grandpa. Through a series of ups and downs, Hiro learns that everybody’s definition of “perfect” ramen is different, bringing in lessons of embracing mistakes, learning, and growth. The author includes a recipe for simple miso ramen that readers can try at home. $24, amazon.ca

Compassion in the lunchroom

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard

Fry Bread tells the story of the vast, rich, and extraordinarily diverse history of this simple food that continues to be a source of pride and nourishment for First Nations communities across North America for over 150 years. It’s a story about beauty in simplicity, the connection to tradition and community, and also resilience and survival. The author’s notes help add depth and can lead to further discussions about what happened to Indigenous communities in Canada, and what is still happening today. $15, bookoutlet.ca
Compassion in the lunchroom

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

Amy loves the ritual of making, and especially eating, bao with her family. And she is determined to make the perfect bao, just as her parents and grandmother do. Through Amy’s fumbles and frustrations, she discovers a clever hack to make her bao better. Through patience and perseverance, Amy finds that she can make bao that are perfect for her. The author includes Amy’s family recipe for bao. $24, indigo.ca
Compassion in the lunchroom

Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed

Bilal brings his friends into the kitchen to help him and his Abu make daal, a South Asian legume soup. While the kids prepare the spices, they whisper to one another that the daal looks and smells funny and Bilal worries that his friends won’t like his favourite food. Highlighting this experience of othering, this book is a welcome, honest, and heartwarming story with an important message. It also includes a recipe for daal. $13, bookoutlet.ca

Everyone loves lunchtime but zia

Everyone Loves Lunchtime but Zia by Jenny Liao

Zia is the only one who brings “different” food to school. The kids comment negatively on it and even question her ability to eat it, making Zia wish that her lunch looked like everyone else’s. Zia’s parents prepare her a special lunch each day to help Zia understand the meaning and magic behind the dishes. The author includes a recipe for Lucky Yi Mein and a list of dishes with their phonetic pronunciations and descriptions. $27, amazon.ca

Kris Osborne is a recipe developer, writer, and food media producer helping people eat well and live better.

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