Module 3: Opening a Dialogue
Communicating About Food

3.2 Using Food to Open a Dialogue

FamilyCommunication works best with familiar topics in a trusting environment. For MCH professionals, food provides a terrific opportunity to start a dialogue with a client.

Even when educators and clients have very different eating habits, sharing food experiences can help create common ground. Telling stories about a favorite food or how food is used opens the dialogue between provider and client.

Most people enjoy letting an interested listener know about their background and culture. Asking open-ended questions can encourage people to respond more candidly. Bear in mind that some people may initially feel embarrassed or offended by casual or probing questions, or they may feel that the questions do not respect their privacy.

If the clients seem comfortable, you can go one step further. Preparing food together — and sharing the results — goes a long way in bridging gaps and developing good relationships.


Use the Down Arrow buttons to learn more about talking with clients about food.


Open-ended questions:

  • Help to start the conversation
  • Ask: “Why?” “How?” “What?”
  • Are interpretive (they reveal a person's knowledge)
  • Have a wide range of possible answers
  • Stimulate thinking
  • Promote problem-solving

Suggested approaches to asking questions:

  • Begin with affirming questions (Example: “What meal have you cooked for your family recently that they really enjoyed?”)
  • Wait at least 3 seconds to allow family to respond to your question.
  • Ask questions in a supportive way to encourage communication.

Examples of Questions:

  • “How are you and your partner managing Lisa’s snacking after school? What do you do when you disagree?”
  • “Evan, if you had three wishes, what would they be?”

Everyone has memories related to food. For many people, these memories are connected with family, celebration, and caring.

Sample Client Response
“[My grandmother was] waiting for me in the car [with] a thermos of fresh lemonade — not from a mix, but freshly prepared the way she did. And cookies — homemade cookies. I remember thinking, you know, I must be someone very special for my grandmother to do that for me.”

Asking clients about special occasions helps you learn about how foods are used in their culture and also how their religious beliefs may affect their eating habits.

Sample Client Response
“When my family celebrates Passover, we eat matzo. This is because when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt so quickly, there was no time for the bread to rise. Only unleavened bread can be eaten during the eight days of Passover.”

Other memories of food may not be pleasant, but they still provide an opening to talk about food.

Sample Client Response
“My mother, again, when I was growing up, if she gave medicine, she always followed it with orange juice. So, whenever I try to [drink] orange juice, it kind of gets stuck. So I cannot drink orange juice.”

Keep an open mind as clients answer your open-ended questions and be prepared for the following:

  • Clients may tell you about unfamiliar foods or foods that you would not have considered eating. Respect their answers and welcome the chance to learn.
  • Clients may tell you only what they think you want to hear, or hesitate to open up. If you share with them how you yourself do not always make perfect choices, they may be more candid. This sharing helps establish trust.

Practice Pointer
Two nutritionists discussed the benefits of sharing experiences candidly:
Nutritionist 1: “They think, Well, she likes chocolate, too. She is human.”
Nutritionist 2: “And so, I tell them, ‘If I have oatmeal raisin cookies, I have to take three out [for myself] and get my kids to hide [the rest] so I do not know where they are.’ They [the clients] really identify and they say, ‘Well, okay. You know, if you have these problems and I have my problems, maybe I can do something about it.’ So, I think they appreciate it.”

Members of some cultural groups eat special foods or diets during menstruation, pregnancy, or lactation, and during illnesses such as colds or fevers.

Ask about what your clients eat during these times in their lives. You may also discover health concerns about specific ingredients or preparation methods.

Examples of Special Foods

  • “Cool tea” made with herbs (served hot) has a medicinal effect in humid areas.
  • Members of the Rastafari movement (originally from Jamaica, but now spread throughout Caribbean and other nations) practice Ital, a typically plant-based diet. Fruits and vegetables are eaten in their natural state without any artificial ingredients or chemicals added. Such additives are believed to be harmful. Salt is generally avoided.

Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, among others, feel that maintaining balance is very important to health. Among traditional Chinese people, health and disease are believed to relate to the balance between the yin and yang forces in the body. Diseases that are caused by yang forces may be treated with yin foods to restore balance. The classification of foods as “yin/yang” or “hot/cold” may not reflect the temperature or the spiciness of the food.

If you are talking with a family who follows the yin/yang theory, ask questions. Classification of a food as yin or yang may change depending on the time of year, the seasonings that are used, or whether the person eating the food is male or female. Classifications can change from region to region and even family to family within a region. Whenever possible, work within a family’s belief system to provide nutrition education.

Other cultures have similar theories. The hot/cold theory in Puerto Rico follows the same basic principles as yin and yang, but the food groupings differ somewhat.

You and your client can communicate through food even if you don’t have common food experiences or like the same foods.

Ask about the client’s favorite foods. This approach involves your client in the education process instead of dictating to her.

Favorite foods can be included in any meal pattern, but suggest moderation if needed. If you tell a mother that her child can no longer eat his favorite foods because they are “bad” for him, you risk making her feel criticized. Try to work with your client while educating.

Practice Pointer
“Usually I ask [a client], ‘What are your [child’s] favorite foods?’ I sort of initiate the diet history. …And before they go to see the nutritionist, I have already helped them with their recall. I find out what is important to them first, and then we can work from there.”