Module 3: Opening a Dialogue
Communicating About Food

3.5 Learn What Your Clients are Eating

FamilyTo provide successful nutrition education, it is important to find out what your clients are and are not eating.

Here are some useful questions for finding out about changes in eating patterns. Questions like these will give you an idea of changes that have already occurred in your client’s diet or are likely to take place soon.

Questions to Start the Discussion

Traditional Foods

  • What traditional foods did you eat daily? Weekly?
  • Do you still eat those foods? How often?
  • If you do not, why not?
  • Are there any similar foods in this community?
  • What do you substitute for those foods?

Favorite Foods

  • What was your favorite cultural or traditional food?
  • Do you still eat that food?
  • If yes, is it still a favorite food?
  • If you do not still eat that food, why not?
  • Is there any food similar to that food here in this community?
  • What do you substitute for that food?

New Foods

  • What new foods have you tried since coming to this community?
  • Which of these do you like best?
  • Do you eat them regularly?
  • Do you eat these foods in place of other foods? Which one(s)?
  • Which foods do you dislike, and why?

Food Acquisition

  • Where do you get most of your family’s food? (Examples: neighborhood supermarket, ethnic food market, convenience store, bodega, street food carts, open market in your neighborhood, commodity supplemental food warehouse.)
  • How do you get to the market? Who goes with you? Do they speak English?


Use the Down Arrow buttons to learn more about how to talk to clients about what they are eating.


Many traditional foods are excellent choices. When this is the case, compliment your client on the use of healthy traditional foods or methods of preparation. Encourage families to continue positive traditions, and caution them about switching to high-fat, high-sugar foods commonly available in the U.S.

Notice how closely many traditional eating patterns fit the recommendations for healthy eating. Traditional staple foods are usually in the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group. Protective foods are found mainly in the vegetable and protein categories. Status foods, which are often high in fat and sugar, are usually eaten less often.

Practice Pointers

  • Encourage positive traditional choices: Promote identification of practices that are healthy, and then carefully suggest incorporation of new foods.
  • Keep it familiar: Show how to prepare foods with some familiar ingredients, or give out vegetable seeds of favorite foods.
  • Supply a resource list: Have a list of places to find familiar foods (e.g., ethnic grocery stores or farmers’ markets).

Some food practices may need to be modified. For example, some Mexicans use large amounts of lard in cooking. Once in the United States, their intake of lard often decreases, but it may be replaced by vegetable oil, mayonnaise, and salad dressing, resulting in foods that are still high in fat.

You should help your clients make modifications that don’t interfere with important traditions. Try to share the idea that maintaining traditional food customs and good nutrition are both very important.

You may need to suggest ways to reduce the fat and calorie content of the commodity supplemental foods distributed on American Indian or Alaska Native reservations.

While encouraging positive cultural food habits, you should also be teaching clients about foods typically associated with the United States. Learning about these foods is an important way for a newcomer to better understand their new community.

People want and need to learn about the foods commonly consumed in this country for many reasons. This is especially helpful for those who need to find substitutes for foods that aren’t available. Parents should know what their children are eating at school and with their friends, to help them develop healthy eating habits.

Practice Pointer

Create hands-on experiences: For one Head Start program, hands-on experiences seemed to work best — giving parents the opportunity to touch and compare foods, prepare and taste new foods.