Fingers or Forks?

During the discussion after one of the presentations I gave in Chicago recently, one mother sparked some interesting questions.  She represented so many perspectives that can’t fit in a neat box.  A Mexican-American, with a standard Midwest accent, she was wearing a tightly closed headscarf, so I first took her for an Arab mother.  When she spoke up, she mentioned that she converted to Islam before meeting her future husband.  People make assumptions about her: that she converted after she married, and probably is repressed or forced to cover up – but this is so far from her reality.

We leaped from this demographic intersection to her immediate dilemma: Fingers or utensils at the table? And how to enforce consistent rules for our children to follow?  The parents in the room, regardless of their ethnic and religious background, inched a little forward in their seats to engage in a universal question.

She visited Morocco with her husband and two young daughters this summer, where the extended family, like all traditional Moroccans, eat with their hands, usually scooping up food with a piece of flatbread or another edible utensil.  Before this trip she’d spent countless meals with her children reminding them to “use a fork” and “don’t forget your manners.”  But during this exciting international experience, all her guidance seemed useless.  So, what’s a conscientious parent to do?  How do kids navigate a table where sometimes it’s polite to eat with hands only, and other times it’s the height of rude?

Try these strategies, the group and I offered:

  • Talk to them about what they’re about to experience.  When they’re prepared – even minimally, nothing elaborate – for the experience they’re about to have, children as young as 3 or 4 can start to think about the behavior that’s expected of them and will have an easier time with it.  I talk about this in a bit more detail in Growing Up Global Chapter 6, Break Bread.
  • Show them there are different rules for eating, even with familiar American foods.  We eat pizza and hamburgers with our hands, but mashed potatoes and macaroni with forks.  Rules change depending on the food we eat, just like rules might change depending on the country the food comes from.
  • This is a chance to teach the virtue of flexibility.  Along with respect, flexibility might be one of the most important qualities of a global citizen.  When you’re in the midst of gaining understanding about new cultures and the ways of other people, your expectation of the way things should be done needs to shift.  Take a deep breath.  Relax.  Look around.  Things rarely happen in black or white.  Expect some purple – be flexible!
  • Your example is powerful.  If you welcome new experiences, like a new cuisine, new table manners, or an altogether new environment, your children will take their cue from your words, actions, and overall vibe.

Moroccan food in Indianapolis! (from

See how your children will respond to a similar situation.  Enjoy a special meal at a Moroccan or Ethiopian restaurant if there’s one within driving distance.  Prepare them for this experience by talking about what kind of food you might like eating, some of the table manners to expect (e.g., eating with hands is ok; scoop up the food with the flatbreads provided), find the country on the map, and look for a good slide show on-line to show real life and beauty in that place (there are so many, but here are a few:,, – this one comes from a short piece “Taking the Kids to Marrakesh”).  Also, check out the Global Nomads Group ( or my favorite – join their Fan group on Facebook) and get updates from their Semester at Sea, including the recent stop in Morocco.  These are just some links to Morocco experiences, there are as many on Ethiopia.  What other countries’ cuisine is eaten predominantly by hand?  (Also, note that when you go to a Moroccan or other restaurant, you may eat with a fork if you prefer!)

Finally, as I think about fingers as utensils, I’d like to offer a humble tribute to the man who made it possible for millions to scoop their meal with a piece of bread:  Norman Borlaug.  He died Saturday at the age of 95, and was credited for saving many millions from starvation because of his agricultural breakthroughs known as the Green Revolution (yes, I realize there’s controversy here…).  It’s said he was working a field in Mexico when he received news he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.  He dedicated himself to making sure the world’s dinner tables had something for everyone.

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