Cuisine and Etiquette

Students will examine mealtime etiquette in different countries and make inferences about other cultures from the rules governing table manners.

Background Information

Food is one way to experience another culture – and provides a multi-sensory experience for learners. The focus of this activity about mealtime etiquette focuses on how manners reflect cultural norms. Teachers from Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia provided the descriptions.


Students will make inferences about cultural norms from customs related to eating in three African countries.


Large sheets of paper, white board, or computer with projector.


  1. Explain the concept of "staple food," usually a carbohydrate that is eaten daily and is a major source of calories. Ask the students to identify the staple foods of other cultures they have studied (e.g., potatoes for Ireland, rice for Japan, maize for Mexico). What is our staple food? Explore staple food recipes on the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program website for examples. Explain that in their readings in this lesson students will learn that rice is the staple food for most of West Africa, maize (corn) for much of Eastern and Southern Africa, and matoke or cooking bananas, for Uganda.
  2. Ask students to describe the table manners they are expected to observe in their homes or in the school cafeteria. Who eats together? What do you do before eating? Are there rules about your hands or the way you sit? What do you do at the end of a meal? Why do we have rules about how to eat? Have you ever been in situations where the rules you are used to don't seem to fit?
  3. Introduce the countries of Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia. If the students are unfamiliar with their locations, point them out on a map of Africa.
  4. Divide the class into three groups for Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia.
  5. Have each group read the personal essay from their assigned country: Cuisine and Etiquette in Sierra LeoneCuisine and Etiquette in Uganda, Cuisine and Etiquette in Zambia,  to identify the mealtime behaviors that are considered acceptable or unacceptable in Sierra Leone, Uganda, or Zambia.
  6. On large sheets of paper or overhead transparencies, each group should draw up a list of rules for mealtime that they think are observed in their assigned country. The list should include: a) roles for men, women, and children; b) proper behavior before, during, and after the meal; and c) taboos, or what not to do when eating in this country.
  7. Have each group display its lists and report its findings. As a whole class, compare etiquette among the three countries.
  8. Remind students that the cultural behaviors that we can observe often provide ideas about what the group values or thinks is most important. For example, by observing that it is common for Ugandan families to say a prayer before eating, we may assume that religion is an important part of daily life. Work with the whole class to develop some ideas about the values represented by the behaviors they listed. Some examples follow:

  • In Sierra Leone, if you visit a friend, he or she will almost always invite you to stay and eat. (Possible values: sharing, hospitality)
  • In Sierra Leone, when people finish eating, they wash their hands and thank the cook. (Possible values: cleanliness, respect for adults and for work)
  • In Uganda, the responsibility for preparing the familys meals belongs solely to women and girls in the home. (Possible value: clearly defined roles for men and women)
  • In Zambia, if visitors happen to have a meal with the family, they are given the honor of washing first. (Possible value: guests are treated with honor)


Use the following questions to focus discussion on the meaning of culture.

  1. What are some mealtime rules observed in your household that are similar to those observed in the African households described in your reading?
  2. What are some mealtime habits or rules in your home that a visitor from one of these three African countries may find unusual? What could you do to make your visitor feel comfortable?
  3. Zambian children learn lessons about manners from their mothers during mealtime. How did you learn what behavior is appropriate at mealtime?
  4. What if you brought a guest from Sierra Leone to a fast food restaurant in the United States? What might your friend think about the type of food, the manner of serving it, and the way people eat?
  5. Why are rules of etiquette so important? Whose rules do you follow when your sharing a meal at someone's house? Whose rules do you follow in a restaurant? 


  • Simulate an African meal using recipes provided by the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program. Responsibilities for preparation should be divided among class members as you see fit. Some classes may prefer to prepare one dish; others may want to sample several. The easiest dish to prepare is fried plantains. Groundnut stew is simple to prepare, and Americans usually enjoy it. During the meal, follow the rules outlined in the readings as closely as possible. Following the meal, debrief the class by asking them to react to eating African style.
  • Encourage class members to tell their own stories about feeling awkward in a strange situation or having a hard time understanding someone else’s ways of doing things. What did they learn from these experiences? Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Chris Davis, who served in Guatemala from 1987 to 1989, remembers his first meal in his host country as an awkward one:

I am trying to force down what they give me, none of it recognizable to me. Some kind of fried vegetable and small pieces of meat. The mother smiles broadly at me, turns to [scold] one of her older kids, then smiles at me again. Since I am unaware that I have to be the one to stand first, we sit at the table for over three hours.

  • Invite a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, an international exchange student, a recent immigrant, or students’ family members to talk about food and manners in other countries. 
  • Use this lesson plan to supplement content on African agriculture or climate.

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