Food is an important part of many cultures and religions worldwide. However, there may be many differences between the allowed food on your dining room table and theirs. Learning the dietary restrictions of different religions and cultures can be a recipe for success when feeding international students.

More than daily nourishment, food can bring people together.  Food makes any gathering much more inviting. Food allows people to slow down and enjoy each other while sharing a meal. As a thoughtful host,  your goal is to be sensitive to your international guests by providing them a meal that does not suggest they choose between honoring you, their host, and their personal values. Below are five examples of dietary differences practiced by different cultures and religions to consider as you feed your international guests.

1. Meat

Meat is a great part of the meal in many cultures, but which meats are considered acceptable to eat (if any) varies in different cultures and religions.  The type of meat considered acceptable or unacceptable may be different at different times of the year, such as during specific holidays.

Students practicing Islam do not eat pork or any product containing pork (marshmallows, gelatin desserts, and some granola bars). “Jason” from IFI in Northeast Ohio, who befriends primarily with the Muslim student community from the Gulf region, explains that “…students hold varying opinions regarding which foods are “halal” (acceptable) and which are “haram” (forbidden)… Conservative Muslims, particularly those who are Shia, will not eat any meat (other than fish) unless it is “halal”– butchered according to Islamic guidelines, which require that  the animal be butchered in a manner that inflicts the least pain, ie, by cutting the throat. A prayer is also said when the animal is butchered.” Jason recommends that you prepare/purchase halal meat if your international guest is from a Muslim background or country. This is a great way to show hospitality.

Many students or scholars who come from India or other Hindu countries may be vegetarians, though not all. Some will eat chicken and turkey only, along with vegetarian food. Some will also eat pork and seafood. Most will not eat beef because cows are viewed as sacred, though they may do so while away from their home country.

Those practicing Buddhism usually are vegetarian, but some sects have different guidelines on eating meat. Those practicing Judaism and following the Jewish dietary laws (Kashrut), generally abstain from eating pork, shellfish, and most insects and avoid any foods such as beef stroganoff or pizza with meat toppings (because it mixes milk products and meat).

2. Alcohol

Muslims generally avoid consuming alcohol. Jason suggests providing Muslim students with cold bottled water, since they are more used to drinking bottled water than tap water. Sweet carbonated drinks and black tea with sugar are also popular drinks. To ensure your guests’ comfort, don’t drink wine or other alcohol when dining with Muslim guests. In fact, some hosts will move their alcohol out of sight to make their guests feel at home.

3. Dairy and eggs

Cheryl from IFI Cincinnati explains that Indian or Hindu students may or may not eat eggs and milk products.  To be safe, ask. Those who practice Jainism might be strict vegetarians. Jains also might not eat potatoes or other root vegetables.

4. Raw vegetables

Cheryl says that “…While those from other countries may eat lettuce salads, most Chinese are not used to eating raw vegetables…” Fresh salads are foreign to many culinary traditions, since crops may be grown using human and animal manure to enrich the soil. Where water is scarce, plants fertilized in this way cannot be washed to sanitary standards. The solution is cooking everything that comes from the earth. If you do offer fresh vegetables, such as cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes, wash them thoroughly before adding them to the dish.

Because many Indian cultures emphasize eating freshly prepared food, your Indian guest may not be comfortable eating leftovers. Also, when eating with an Indian guest, double dipping or offer to share a bite of food from your own plate is not a cultural norm.

5. Fasts

Ask whether your international guest is fasting. Fasting does not necessarily mean that they are not eating at all; it might just mean they are only eating specific foods for a while. So ask ahead of time whether they are fasting or  adhering to a specific diet related to a religious holiday (e.g. Ramadan) or family tradition.

Additional food tips

Offer food multiple times!
Karen from IFI Columbus urges hosts to  “ … offer food and refreshments several times if at first your guests refuse; their refusal is an effort not to appear greedy and to give you the opportunity to show the strength of your hospitality! (A good host insists that the offering be accepted!) In many Asian cultures, it is considered rude to accept anything on the first offer. I’d say be especially watchful for polite refusal of a drink of water or snacks offered between meals.”

When to eat
The time you usually eat dinner might not be the same as when your international guest does. From his experience with Muslim students, Jason suggests keeping in mind that “most students have a large lunch around 4pm and dinner around 9pm. Therefore, if you’re planning to serve them dinner at 6:00pm, they may arrive having just finished their afternoon meal. To compromise, consider having an early dinner around 4:30 or 5:00 pm on a Saturday or Sunday.”

What to wear
When feeding an international from a background that values modesty, such as a Muslim student, consider how you are dressed. Dress modestly and make sure your children are also dressed modestly. This will help make your international guest feel comfortable during your time together.

Out of consideration for international guests, remove your pet and pet-related items from your home (if possible), since some cultures view dogs and cats (and certainly pet mice, rats, gerbils, and guinea pigs!) as unclean. Do not display alcohol or pork-related items/decor in your home, temporarily store these out of sight until you’ve learned how sensitive your guest’s conscience is. Doing this can ensure your international guest is as comfortable as possible in your home.

Sharing recipes
Showing your guests the recipe you used in preparing your meal can assure them that they won’t inadvertently eat anything forbidden

Simple foods to have on hand

  • Frozen vegetarian dishes such as: vegetarian lasagna, veggie burgers and vegetarian pizza.
  • Rice
  • Bottled water
  • Fish
  • Chicken
  • Vegetables
  • A dozen eggs (so you could prepare an egg-based meal on short notice).
  • Pita bread and hummus
  • Brown, yellow or red lentils

Suggested Dishes

From Jason: “Most students from the Gulf region typically enjoy “kabsa,” meat (beef roast or chicken) with rice, for every dinner. This is standard. If you want to treat them, buy a halal beef roast and serve with mashed potatoes or rice, salad, and cold bottled water.  They will love your hospitality!”

From Cheryl: “I’ve learned to cook some things a little more the Chinese way, so sometimes if we have Chinese friends over, we might cook together, cooking meat dishes, veggie dishes, or noodle dishes. Many internationals enjoy showing their American friends how to make something from their country.”
Other recipes Cheryl has had success with include curry dishes or things with dal (lentils), but she notes that dal might not be a favorite of Chinese students. Cheryl also prepares: Mexican taco/tortilla bar (including vegetarian options), garlic bread, teriyaki chicken, spaghetti with meat sauce, Thai cabbage salad, and southwestern chicken mac and cheese. For desserts, Cheryl suggests “the less sweet the better” so reduce the sugar in your dessert recipes.  Chocolate and fruit are also well received for dessert.

From Karen: “I have served quiche to those who are okay with Swiss or cheddar cheese, cooked vegetables, fruit (always good!); eggs scrambled with cream cheese, onions, green peppers, shredded cheddar, topped with salsa and sour cream served with tortillas or tortilla chips; 7-bean casserole served with rice; stir-fried veggies with tofu served with rice; chili (vegetarian if the guests don’t eat meat) with rice or spaghetti noodles; and veggie burgers (homemade sometimes).”