Cultural Food Preferences in Food Service

This information is intended mainly for federal, state, and local public health practitioners working in food service. It may also be helpful to food service vendors and others seeking to offer more foods that not only meet nutrition standards but are culturally preferred by the populations they serve. This information was developed to:

  • Help public health professionals understand the importance of providing culturally preferred foods.
  • Suggest ways to collaborate with vendors and other partners.
  • Offer guidance on how to support the implementation of cultural preferences in food service.
Which factors, other than cultural identity, influence customer food choice and selection?

Customers choose foods for a variety of reasons. Their decisions may be based on their preferences for:

  • Price, convenience, taste, and related factors
  • Agricultural growing techniques, such as organic farming
  • Sourcing of products, such as local or regional foods
  • Food preparation methods, including the use of specific ingredients
  • New foods or cuisines
  • Foods that help prevent or manage chronic health conditions

What are Culturally Preferred Foods and Why Are They Important to Offer in Food Service?

The term “culturally preferred foods” is used here to describe safe and nutritious foods that meet the diverse tastes and needs of customers based on their cultural identity. For example, people who identify with Muslim or Jewish religious traditions may want foods that are Halal or Kosher, respectively. Culture has many influences, and it’s important to keep in mind that one person does not represent their entire culture*. Learn more about culture and food.

Offering affordable, culturally preferred food options that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans allows customers to choose foods that meet their cultural and dietary needs. This expands opportunities for customers to select familiar and healthier foods they prefer. Improved diet quality may positively impact the health of customers. In addition, other customers have a chance to learn about cuisines that are different than their own and become more culturally aware.

* “Culture can be defined by group membership such as racial, ethnic, linguistic or geographic group, or as a collection of beliefs, values, customs, ways of thinking, communication, and behaving to a specific group.” (1).

How Do I Make Decisions and Get Support for Culturally Preferred Foods?

You can draw on the expertise of your food service guidelines team, including the food service vendors and staff, organizational leadership, and worksite wellness staff. Food service vendors and staff are especially important to your food service guideline team. They may ensure buy-in and feasibility for including diverse food offerings. If your food service guidelines team does not already represent the diversity of your customers, consider how to include these perspectives. This is a critical step, but keep in mind that the opinions of one person do not necessarily represent a specific culture (2).

Discuss with your food service guidelines team the importance of adding culturally diverse foods in various venues, such as cafeterias and vending, to get their support. Food service guidelines team members may help with:

  • Developing a plan for incorporating culturally preferred foods into food service guidelines.
  • Collecting ideas and feedback related to culturally preferred foods from food service employees and their customers via surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
  • Collaborating with food service staff to improve offerings of culturally preferred nutritious options based on customer feedback.

External partners, such as professional organizations, can also provide resources, help with sourcing cultural foods, and conduct other activities to help achieve your goal.

How Do I Identify Which Foods are Culturally Preferred?

Gather Preliminary Information about the Customer Base

Vegetable platters

Conduct a comprehensive baseline assessment to identify the cultural background of your customer base. You may be able to gather sociodemographic characteristics of customers from the human resources department. Next, work with your food service guidelines team to carry out the appropriate qualitative assessment(s) on your customers food preferences.

Depending on your setting and capacity level, you may choose to conduct observational assessments, surveys, informal interviews, and/or focus groups with customers from diverse cultures to determine their perceptions of cultural food offerings and their food preferences. These assessments should identify key facilitators and barriers to offering culturally preferred food options in your setting.

The food service vendor may conduct the assessments as part of their current contractual scope of work, so work with them to avoid duplication of effort. Consider gathering data from food service managers and potential new customers, such as employees who don’t currently frequent the food service venue. Assessments can be conducted routinely, as needed.

Develop and Conduct a Customer Survey

Define the goal of your assessment with your food service guideline team before determining survey questions for your assessment.  For example, your primary goal may be to identify the top foods enjoyed by the specific cultural groups of your population to encourage vendors and food service staff to add them into the menu rotations. Make sure that your questions lead you to attaining your goal. Questions can be multiple choice, scaled (such as Likert), or open-ended and can be qualitative, quantitative, or any combination. Work with your food service guidelines team to identify the appropriate dissemination plan. You may choose to collect surveys using pen and paper or a web-based platform. If using web-based, consider including a quick response (QR) code for customer convenience.

Consider asking customers questions around the following themes:

  • The types of foods embraced by their culture.
  • Their cultural habits and traditions (such as religious observances and holidays) related to food.
  • Their preference to eat foods of their culture when away from home versus foods typically served in food service settings.
  • Facilitators (such as food looks appealing, displayed prominently, or inexpensive) to purchase of cultural foods.
  • Barriers (such as food is inauthentic, lack of variety, or foods offered are not representative of customer’s culture) to purchase of cultural foods.
  • Use of food to prevent or manage chronic health conditions.
  • Frequency of eating at setting and expected frequency if culturally desired foods were served.
  • Recommendations for improvements to food offerings.
  • Preferences for specialized utensils (such as chopsticks) or foods (such as bread) to eat with.
  • Their favorite items on the current menu.

Assess the Current Menu

Examine your setting’s menu cycles to determine if the foods offered represent the views and culture of customers. This allows you to see where opportunities for improvements exist.

How Do I Communicate with Vendors about Adding Culturally Preferred Foods to Menus?

If your food vendor is not bound by contract to add culturally diverse foods, you can ask them if it would be feasible to do so. Any changes would need to be within the scope of their contract and budget, without incurring additional cost. Consider asking the food vendor questions around the following themes:

Sushi bar
  • Willingness to offering culturally preferred foods.
  • Cost-effectiveness of sourcing ingredients.
  • Ability to offer culturally preferred foods that also meet nutrition standards in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans [PDF-30.9MB Guideline 2.
  • Whether specialized kitchen equipment might be needed.
  • Knowledge and experience cooking diverse cuisines.
  • Types of foods and cuisines in which vendors would make a profit.
  • How often to introduce new or seasonal recipes to the menu rotation.
  • Willingness to offer specific dishes tied to religious observances.
  • Promotion of new menu items.

If you included sourcing culturally diverse foods in your vendor contracts, the vendor may conduct the assessments voluntarily or as stipulated by contract. Otherwise, you may want to conduct and share assessment findings with your food vendor.

How Do I Help Vendors Include Customer Cultural Preferences?

Identify Cross-Cultural Ingredients

Of those cuisines identified in the customer assessments, suggest that the vendor consider a few common ingredients. For example, rice, beans, and corn are popular staple foods across many cultures that are inexpensive, easy to find, and likely already being purchased and used. Offering dishes that use these ingredients may be a cost-effective approach, especially if the vendor has limited access to specialty food items. Consider what is easiest for your vendor to implement and start with that. You can ask the vendor to add other menu items later.

Consider Fusion of Flavors

Korean beef bulgogi tacos with avocado and cabbage

The vendor may want to experiment with the fusion of flavors to create new cuisines that are appealing across cultures. Fusion cuisine combines the flavors of two or more cultures to create interesting and familiar dishes. The vendor may choose to review existing recipes to identify where substitutions can be made without incurring additional costs. For example, if the recipe calls for cream, the vendor can use coconut milk instead to develop Thai flavors. Spices, herbs, and oils can be used to infuse dishes with the desired cultural flavors. Although fusion foods (such as bulgogi tacos or spaghetti and curry meatballs) may offer familiarity to a culture, they are still different and should not be considered “traditional” or representative of the culture. You or the vendor can add an assessment question about customer receptivity to fusion foods to determine if customers would consider that as an acceptable alternative.

Consider Use of Food Stations or Bars

Offering food stations or bars are another way to add variety to a menu. They give customers the autonomy to select their preferred foods while still encouraging them to try the foods of other cultures. Explore using food bars to offer familiar, healthy, and culturally diverse foods. Examples include taco, ramen, or pho bars. Encourage customers to try these foods by using creative naming, taste testing, alterations to the food display, and other behavioral design strategies. This will facilitate customer purchase and venue profit.

How Can Vendors Source Culturally Preferred Foods?

Staple Ingredients

As stated in the previous question, the vendor may want to use staple ingredients that are common across culturally preferred cuisines because they may be relatively inexpensive and readily sourced.  However, keep in mind that some cultures may have specific preferences about growing practices and sourcing. For example, American Indians in the Midwest may prefer wild rice sourced from farms owned by American Indians, and members of Southwest American Indian tribes may prefer products from blue corn instead of yellow corn. South Asian cultures may prefer basmati or long grain rice, whereas East Asian cultures may find short grain or sticky rice more acceptable.

Spices and Herbs

Spices can be used to infuse a dish with the flavors of a culture. If the distributor does not have specific spices or flavorings needed for a cultural cuisine, the vendor can check with local ethnic markets or ask local restaurants where to source specialty ingredients.

Meats and Produce

Sample Language for RFPs

The following sample language can be used to support cultural food goals in an organization’s official RFP or solicitation process for food vendors:

“This solicitation seeks to obtain bids from qualified vendors who can ensure that food service offerings are culturally desired and have been adapted to meet regional and client-centered preferences. In addition, vendor adaptations must still meet the specified food and nutrient requirements included in the 2017 Food Service Guidelines for Federal Facilities [PDF-3.34MB] for prepared foods and packaged snacks at the standard or innovative level of implementation.”

For meats and produce, the vendor can buy from local growers, if feasible, to reduce the supply chain time. When possible, vendors can consider buying from farmers and ranchers who use desired cultural practices and techniques when processing meats and growing produce.

How Do I Ensure Contracts and Policies Support Culturally Preferred Foods?

To ensure cultural food goals are met, you may want to add a cultural food standard to your organization’s food service guidelines policy, such as: “All onsite food vendors are encouraged to offer a variety of foods related to the cultural heritages of customers and meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Alternatively, your organization could officially solicit food vendors, via the Request for Proposals (RFP) process, that are willing to assess cultural food preferences of customers and include cultural foods in the menu cycles. Once you’ve reviewed bids and selected a qualified vendor, make sure all cultural food standards are included as stipulated in the final contract language and vendor’s scope of work.

To find more general information on including food service guidelines standards in vendor contracts, RFPs, and organizational policies, please refer to the policy section of the Food Service Guidelines Implementation Toolkit.

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