Putting it All on the Table: Eating with Host Families

The writer, Katrina, with her Russian host sisters. Katrina Keegan

Written by  January 21, 2020

Signing up for a homestay means navigating a new culture, family and diet. From dietary restrictions to vehement dislikes, here's how to find your place at the table. 

The old adage could be revised: The way to a host student’s heart is through their mouth.

With the opportunity to sample authentic dishes, bond and practice language around the dinner table, it’s no wonder eating is one of the primary benefits of living with a host family. However, issues from food poisoning to excessive hospitality might leave you thinking you bit off more than you can chew.

Regardless of whether you have dietary restrictions or are just a picky eater, these six ideas will help you build a meaningful—and (ful)filling—host family relationship.

Clearly communicate your dietary needs

“Your host family doesn’t want to poison you,” says American exchange student Alexandra Price, who dealt with a gluten allergy with host families in Moldova and Russia.

This may seem obvious, but hospitality can get in the way of health. It can be difficult to convey the importance of dietary restrictions to the people cooking for you. Even basic ingredients, like spices and instant coffee, can put you at risk for cross-contamination, so it is important to show your family how to read food labels and consistently double-check.

Religious and self-selected diets may be even less well understood. Manage them, as you would an allergy, through clear, upfront communication.

Alternatively, you could consider changing your diet during your time abroad. Although I’m a vegetarian, I ate meat during my year in Russia. I knew I would be fed just carbs and vegetables, since protein substitutes like beans and tofu are extremely uncommon in Russian food. I decided my overall health was more important than my vegetarianism, at least for now. 

Trust your instincts.

American student Caitlin Hamilton, who lived with a host family in China, wishes she were more honest about what she wanted to eat, because she took "an anything-goes attitude" that tended to get her into gastrointestinal trouble.

She's not alone. I got bad food poisoning with a dangerously high fever after eating meat from an Azerbaijani village wedding. My host family was very sympathetic, agreeing the meat must have been kept in unsanitary conditions.

A few weeks later, they wanted to serve me meat from a different Azerbaijani village wedding. I was nervous and said I thought it might not be a good idea after my recent illness, but they insisted they had eaten it already and been fine. Sure enough, I was sweating and shivering over the toilet again that night. This time, they refused to believe it was food poisoning, and instead blamed the usual causes of sickness: getting cold, going outside with wet hair, and so on.

I successfully explained that my body isn’t used to the bacteria, so I didn’t have immunity, even if my host family did.

For isolated incidents like a little undercooked chicken one day, it might save everyone’s feelings to blame some street food. But ultimately, it's best to trust your instincts and speak up. 

Say yes to the best foods—and take your least favourites off the table

In communicating likes and dislikes, many host students I spoke with agreed that the best defence is a good offence. If there is anything you really hate, it is best to bring it up in the first day or two, ideally before they have already prepared it. Then, throughout your stay, the more lavishly you praise dishes you do like, the more your host family will serve them.

If your favourite dishes don’t appear on the table again soon, you can subtly remind them a few days later. For example, American student Monica Unzueta, who lived with a family in Chile, suggests mentioning how you told a friend how good a particular dish was. Your host family will then tacitly understand lack of praise to mean you prefer other foods.

The more lavishly you praise dishes you do like, the more your host family will serve them.

Sometimes silence doesn’t cut it, though. While you should always try foods (one interviewee revealed that she thought she didn’t like avocados until she was too embarrassed to refuse one offered by her Ugandan host family) if you don’t like something, it is better not to mince words. You might even be able to laugh about finally finding a food you don’t like, as American student Sophia Winkler did with her host family in Morocco after trying stomach and intestine soup on Eid, a Muslim holiday.

Host families understand you come from a different culture, and a good way for you to acknowledge that is to replace “I don’t like it” with “I’m not accustomed to it.” It’s not just polite, it could also be true. The first time I tried the Russian salad “herring under a fur coat” (fish, onion, beats, carrots, potato, mayonnaise, boiled egg) my taste buds rebelled. I told my family I just had to get used to it. Now, I even make it for myself.

Of course, there are even more creative ways to say you don’t like something. American student Daniel Herschlag meant to tell his host family in Kyrgyzstan, “I don’t think this is going to go well in my stomach,” but instead of saying “stomach” (zhivot) he said “life” (zhizn). It got the point across!

Stop eating when you’re full

At the end of her stay, American student Elizabeth Smith’s Japanese host grandma “announced proudly that all of her students gain weight thanks to her cooking.” A Ugandan host mother gave Madison James so much food that she assumed it was supposed to be shared by the whole family. As a result, the mom called the program facilitator multiple times to complain that her “daughter is not eating enough.” All over the world, hospitality is frequently expressed in food, and you may have to learn the art of declining it.

Right up there with “thank you,” “I’m full” is crucial day-one vocabulary. If you overeat out of politeness at the beginning, your host family will think those are your normal portion sizes, and you could struggle with overeating the entirety of your stay. Ask to put the food on your plate yourself, or watch them do it and say when it is enough. Actually, say it is enough before it is enough, because multiple of my host mothers would usually frown and add one more spoonful. You can also try to postpone food: fake a smaller serving at first to have “room for seconds,” say you might have some more a bit later, take the initiative of packaging it up to take with you for lunch or put in the fridge for tomorrow.

In certain cultures, women may have an easier time than men. When I lived with the same host family as my boyfriend in Ukraine, he was offered second helpings more often than me—and was also expected to take a lot more shots at parties. Men can and should be just as adamant. You can be humorous, like Daniel Herschlag, who repeatedly told to his Bosnian host mother that “I cannot possibly fit the food meant for three people in my singular stomach.” Or, you can be sincere: American student Gabriel Davis’ main advice after living with two host families in Morocco was to “eat until you were full, then thank God and stop.”

Of course, the opposite problem could arise. Some of my friends in Moldova struggled with not being fed enough, or not enough healthy food, such as protein and vegetables. If this happens, talk to your program director. Many programs have host families sign contracts that a certain portion the stipend they receive must go toward your food. If your host family cannot afford to feed you a healthy diet, that is a perfectly valid reason to move host families, especially for longer-term programs.

Try to help out (if you can)

Most host families will try to treat you like a guest, and in some cultures, may not even let their own kids help out around the house. So get ready for the War of the Dirty Dishes. The war will consist of many battles during which you and your host mother (it is almost always the host mother) will fight over the right to the sink and soap. Tactics include:

• Spying on her methods and where the dishes go, so you are ready to do it correctly when you get a chance

• Sneak attacks when she is out of the kitchen

• A strong stance to prevent her from pushing you out of the way

• Debates about how she already did so much work making you dinner, and in your culture it is common for other family members and guests to help with dishes

• Temporary truces when you clear the table or dry dishes while she washes

However, if you are losing the war, don’t despair. As Alexandra Price points out from her time in Russia, you can show your appreciation in other ways, such as through small gifts.

It is even more unlikely that you will be allowed to help with more complicated tasks like grocery shopping or cooking. However, the host family may be willing to let you share those experiences with them if you frame it as a cultural learning experience. American student Alyssa Diller loved going food shopping twice a week with her Chinese host mother, and every time they brought back a new fruit for her to try. When Monica Unzueta asked her Chilean host mother to teach her how to make some traditional dishes, the mom made an event of it, telling her to invite friends too.

You can also share your own culture through cooking. When I told my Russian host sisters that I usually made my brother coconut-lime cake for his birthday, they decided that they wanted it for their birthday too. We went on a mission to find limes in an outdoor market and baked it together.

Let your host family make you feel at home

When I think about my year in Moldova, one of my strongest memories is peeling after-dinner walnuts (my host family owned a nut farm) and talking with my host mom about everything from the Soviet Union to my love life.

Sharing meals is one of the most reliable ways to develop language skills, learn about culture, and simply feel a sense of belonging. Elizabeth Smith, who is Japanese-American, was shy about putting soy sauce on her scrambled eggs like she would at home. When her Japanese host grandmother asked why she hadn’t, Elizabeth realized that "the things that made me weird at home would help me fit in in Japan.”

However, every family is different, even within the same culture. Sophia Winkler’s Moroccan host mom would be uncomfortable when she asked to go out to eat with her friends, and so she adjusted to a loss of independence in exchange for many fulfilling meals with her host family. In contrast, Gabriel Davis’ Moroccan host family became seemingly less interested in eating with him as time went on, and he had a more random assortment of host family members at each meal. Both came to the same conclusion about their experience: they were being treated the same way the family would approach their own children.

They, just like many of us host students, ate their way into becoming a member of the host family and culture.

 

Related: How to make sure the welcome mat stays out at your homestay

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Published in Study Abroad
Katrina Keegan

Katrina Keegan is a University of Chicago student studying in St. Petersburg, Russia for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Bard-Smolny Program. She is living with a host family and taking classes with local students.

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