by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer
Slicing fruit for a fruit salad, mixing dough for cookies, creating our own smoothie blends—these are some of the fun and easy ways that I get my kids, George, 12, and June, 9, busy in the kitchen with me. They’ve both learned some serious skills over the years—we’ve been cooking together since George was 4 and June not even 2. The cooking first started as a therapeutic approach to help George learn to focus and engage with others.
George has autism, is minimally verbal and struggles with not only expression but also attention. That is, he has lots of attention for things that interest him and that he can do on his own, but he, like many children on the autism spectrum, does not naturally gravitate to back-and-forth, dynamic activities that build relationships—which is why I value our cooking time together so much. When we cook, George and I work easily in relationship; I may pour and he may stir, or vice versa. We read the list of ingredients together and go on a search through our pantry and fridge to find what we need. We measure, mix and mash, with easy back and forth. George clearly feels competent when he is cooking with me, and I savor the way that our attention is joined together.
What I discovered by cooking with George is that time in the kitchen also translated to a wonderful, fun, healthy way to work on developmental skills with June, who is typically developing, too. Cooking is also a great way to work on fine and gross motor skills (stirring, kneading, juicing, carrying groceries, etc.), sensory integration (think of the different smells and textures involved in cooking), pre-literacy (looking at the letters on food labels, reading through recipes together), math (counting, fractions, etc.) and even science (watching how ingredients change in response to temperature). Especially during the summer months when no one wants to think about school work, cooking is a way that parents can “sneak” learning into a fun, shared experience.
The summer before June started kindergarten, I wanted to make sure she remembered all of her alphabet so we cooked our way through fruit and vegetable recipes from A—apples and apricots—to Z—yummy zucchini bread. The venture was fun and delicious for both of us—and encouraged her to try a ton of new fruits and vegetables.
Kids grow in confidence in the kitchen every month that they are cooking. So many of our kids have not had the opportunity to make their own food, to literally get their hands wet and experience the process of transforming raw ingredients into delicious, nutritious meals. As parents and educators, we need to make time to ensure that our children learn the important life skill of cooking.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is an educator, cooking instructor and mom who teaches cooking programs for kids, parents, teachers and more. She has written several books including The Kitchen Classroom, available on Amazon, as well as four recipe e-books. Connect with her at KitchenClassroom4Kids.com. She also founded Celebrations!, a family education program for children with special needs, their parents and siblings. Visit Mishkan.org for more information. August 2015.