More than half of Guatemalan citizens are descendants of indigenous Mayan people. As such, the Guatemalan cuisine is strongly influenced by the diet of Mayan Indians. Corn and beans are the foundation of the diet, supplemented with squash, tomatoes, chilies, tropical fruit, cocoa, and wild game. Rice, introduced by the Spanish, has also become a staple food. Black beans are especially popular, and refried black beans are fondly referred to as “Guatemalan caviar.” French bread, in the form of small rolls, is commonly eaten. Fruits and vegetables are abundant, and salads and pickled vegetables are common preparations. Guatemalan fare is often identified from other Central American food by the use of achiote, a seasoning that colors foods orange. Another important seasoning throughout Central America is epazote, which is often used in bean cookery as an anti-gas agent. Heavily sweetened coffee and hot chocolate are favorite beverages as well as fruit flavored cold drinks.
Chronic malnutrition in Guatemala is attributable to income inequality (much of the population lives on under $2 a day), political unrest, a lack of education, increased price of food (particularly protein foods), poor infrastructure, and uncertain access to clean water. The official language is Spanish, but it is not universally understood among the indigenous groups, of which there are 24 each with their own language. This has made provision of nutrition and health education difficult.
Coffee is one of the first liquids given to infants in Guatemala. Researchers studied whether coffee affected iron status in children and found that while coffee interferes with utilization of supplemental iron, it does not appear to affect other indices of iron status in children not taking an iron supplement. It is important to recognize that the caffeine in coffee and other beverages does not act upon children in the same manner as adults. Little data exists about the effects of habitual caffeine intake in children, but caffeine consumption may have a negative impact on sleeping patterns, growth and development, and nutritional habits.
Breast feeding is considered as healthy but impractical, and breast milk is often only used as supplementation to formula and solid foods for the first few years of a child’s life. Many Guatemalan children live in foster care prior to adoption, but some children reside in orphanages. Research suggests that Guatemalan children who reside in foster care prior to adoption have better growth and cognitive development than those who lived in orphanages. However, stunting is a common problem and may go unnoticed because the problem is so widespread.
Folate – Folate is needed for making DNA in new cells. It is also critical for spinal cord and brain development in embryos. Folate contributes to heart health because it disposes of homocysteine, an amino acid that may lead to heart disease.
Iron – Iron is necessary for oxygen delivery to cells and regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency develops gradually and is commonly seen in women of childbearing age and children. A lack of iron results in an insufficient supply of oxygen to cells eventually causing anemia, fatigue, poor work performance, slow cognitive and social development in children, and decreased immunity.
Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays a critical role in healthy vision, growth and development, and immune function. Vitamin A deficiency is common in developing countries and is often accompanied by zinc deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency include blindness, diminished ability to fight infections, decreased growth rate, and slow bone development. Vitamin A helps mobilize iron from its storage sites, so a deficiency of vitamin A limits the body’s ability to use stored iron. This results in an “apparent” iron deficiency because iron levels in the blood are low even though body stores are normal.
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is involved in energy production as well as converting the inactive form of folate to its active form. Without adequate vitamin B12, folate deficiency symptoms appear. Thus, vitamin B12 deficiency can cause secondary folate deficiency. An estimated one-third of low-income women and children studied in Guatemala are reported to have deficient or marginal plasma vitamin B-12 concentrations.
Zinc – Zinc is involved in many important processes in the body. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include delayed growth, loss of appetite, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, eye and skin lesions, delayed wound healing, taste abnormalities, and mental fatigue.
Milk/Milk Products – evaporated milk, cream, aged and fresh cheese
Meat/Poultry/Fish – beef, iguana, lizards, pork (all parts including knuckles, tripe, and skin), venison, chicken, duck, turkey, clams, conch, flounder, mackerel, mussels, sea snail, shark, shrimp, sole, tarpon, turtle
Eggs/Legumes – chicken eggs, turtle eggs, black beans, chickpeas, fava beans, kidney beans, red and white beans
Cereals/Grains – corn, rice, wheat
Fruits – apples, bananas, breadfruit, cherimoya, coconut, custard apple, grapes, guava, mameys, mangoes, nances, oranges (sweet and sour types), papaya, passion fruit, pejihaye, pineapples, prunes, sour-sop, sweetsop, tamarind, tangerines, zapote
Vegetables – asparagus, avocados, beets, cabbage, green pumpkin (calabaza), cassava, carrots, cauliflower, chayote, chili peppers, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, hearts of palm, leeks, lettuce, loroco flowers, onions, palm flowers, peas, plantains, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, spinach, sweet peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes, watercress, yams, yucca flowers
Seasonings – achiote (annatto), chili peppers, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, epazote, garlic, mint, nutmeg, thyme, vanilla
Nuts/Seeds – palm tree nuts, sesame, pepitoria (toasted squash seeds)
Beverages – coffee, chocolate, soft drinks (aguas), tropical fruit drinks (refrescas)
Fats/Oils – butter, lard, vegetable oil, shortening
Sweeteners – honey, sugar, sugar syrup
Guatemalans who live in urban areas generally eat three meals a day and have access to a wide variety of food. A typical meal in wealthier areas might include soup, meat, rice, tortillas or bread, and substantial garnishes like guacamole, fried plantains, and pickled vegetables. Rural diets include more simple ingredients, particularly beans and corn, which are eaten at every meal by the poor. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Snacks usually consist of a sweetened drink and a pastry. If invited to dine in a Guatemalan home, it is polite to bring a small gift or dessert. The signal to start eating is when the host says “Buen provecho!” When not eating hands should remain above the table with the wrists resting on the edge. Dishes are passed to the left. Take small portions, as you will be expected to clean your plate. Ask for seconds; your host will consider it a compliment.
Celebrations in Guatemala are often centered on Catholic religious holidays, and special food is prepared on these days. For example, All Saints’ Day is celebrated with a salad called fiambre, which features ample veggies and meat garnished with deli meats, cheese, asparagus, and hard boiled eggs and dressed with a vinaigrette or sweet-and-sour sauce. Consumption of this salad is a family social event, and as many as fifty friends and relatives share the creation!
The transition diet is one you develop to help bridge the gap between your child’s native diet and what eventually will become his or her regular diet at home. The transition diet often includes recipes and foods from the native diet. A good way to start the transition process is to ask exactly what foods your child ate in the orphanage or foster home, using that as a base for your cooking at home. As one parent put it, “I would encourage all parents to adapt the foods they present to mimic what the child had at the orphanage during the first months home. It is an easy adaptation that parents can make to create a more familiar environment during what can be a hard transition.” It may also be helpful to watch the caregivers feed your child at least one meal before returning home. Simple things such as the temperature or texture of foods may be important to your child. One mother wrote, “Our daughter was on formula at the orphanage but they gave it to her very, very hot. It took us a while to realize she wanted everything HOT and would cry hysterically if it wasn’t hot.” Even if you don’t know exactly what your child ate previously, incorporating native foods into his or her diet is a great way to help your child transition to a new culture, as well as preserve traditions from his or her first culture.
Jocón or pollo en jocón is a dish popular with the Mayan population of Guatemala. Chicken is simmered in a tasty sauce tinted a beautiful green by tomatillos and cilantro and thickened with ground sesame and pumpkin seeds and corn tortillas.
2½ to 3 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces
4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 corn tortillas, chopped, soaked in water, drained
1 cup tomatillos, hulled and chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 to 5 jalapeño or serrano chile pepper, chopped*
Place the chicken, water and salt into a large pot over medium-high flame. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove the chicken to a bowl and strain and set aside the broth. Let chicken cool, then remove the meat from the bones and shred it with your fingers. Set aside.
Heat a dry skillet over medium flame. Add the pumpkin and sesame seeds and toast, stirring, until lightly browned. Remove to a coffee grinder and grind to a fine powder.
Add the sesame and pumpkin seeds, tortillas, tomatillos, cilantro, scallions and chile peppers to a food processor or blender. Add 1 cup of the reserved broth and process until smooth. If using a blender you may have to do this step in batches.
Return the chicken to the pot. Pour over puréed sauce and add 1 to 1½ cups of the remaining broth to give it a sauce-like consistency.Heat over medium-low heat and simmer for an additional 15-25 minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve.
Serves 4 to 6
* Serrano peppers are hotter (spicier) than jalepeños. Season according to your family’s taste preference.
Leave the chicken pieces whole if you prefer.
If you can’t find pumpkin seeds, simply use 1/2 cup of sesame seeds. And if finding sesame seeds is a problem, you can substitute a slightly smaller amount of tahini.
Cubed pork can be substituted for the chicken. There is no need to shred the pork, but you may need to simmer it longer for it to become tender.
Use any remaining broth to make rice to accompany the meal.
Fried plantains are commonly eaten as a side dish or as dessert. To make this dish the plantains need to be very ripe, almost black. This recipe is a lower fat method of preparing this Central American dish, which is traditionally fried in oil or lard. If serving for dessert, you may want to sprinkle the plantains with cinnamon before baking for a special treat!
4 very ripe plantains
canola oil or cooking spray
Preheat oven to 450°F. Lightly coat a nonstick cookie sheet with canola oil or cooking spray.
Cut each plantain on the diagonal into 1/2 inch slices. Arrange on the cookie sheet in a single layer, lightly brush plantain slices with canola oil or cooking spray. Sprinkle with cinnamon (optional).
Bake for 10-15 minutes, flipping plantains once mid-cook time, until golden brown and very tender.
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