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Cooking to Learn

Dear Elizabeth,
My son is 3-years-old and loves to help me cook. How can I make this an enriching learning experience for him?
Rebecca Villaseñor
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Cooking helps kids learn fundamental skills & concepts
  • Cooking helps kids develop positive attitudes about themselves
  • Patience & preparation will make it fun for you & your kids
  • Talk together about what you’re doing & seeing
  • Don’t be concerned with the end product
Expert Advice
Leah Melber, Ph.D.
Leah Melber, Ph.D.
Science education professor
Children Learn from Cooking
Cooking teaches children so much. They develop math skills when measuring and sorting ingredients, they develop language and literacy skills when they work with an adult to read a recipe, follow directions, or explain what they are doing. Cooking is a great opportunity to talk about health and nutrition, building healthy habits early on and its also a chance to learn about other parts of the world through different recipes. Most of all, it helps children become problem solvers and how to work with others to accomplish a goal or final product.

What Age?
Children are able to help out in the kitchen at almost any age as long as they can sit at a table or stand at a counter. Younger children, such as toddlers, can start by dumping pre-measured ingredients into a bowl or adding colorful vegetables to a salad bowl. As long as the experiences are safe, I say give it a try.

Three and four year olds can participate in all steps of a recipe as well as taking the lead to mix, knead, and assemble items like fruit skewers. They can even begin to use simple kitchen equipment with adult supervision, such as: pushing the button on the mixer, sifting flour, pushing buttons on a microwave.

Children five years of age and older can start making connections to language arts literacy and reading and writing recipes. They can be given simple recipes to do on their own (without the use of a stove or sharp knife) and can start helping with meal planning. For example, does the meal have a protein, grain and veggie?

Have Patience
Remember to have patience when working with your children in the kitchen. Some of us can whip a recipe together in 15 minutes or less. We can eyeball measurements and multitask so it can be difficult to watch a child labor over measuring exactly or struggling to stir stiff dough. We don’t want to discourage children so it’s best to pick a time when you’re not in a rush so you can be as patient as possible. Or, for those busier times, select tasks that you know your child can do quickly. You may be in charge of measuring; they may be in charge of dumping ingredients into the bowl. Adults also need to be patient and not make a big deal when kids spill things or make a mess.

Ask Questions
During the cooking process, remember to engage your child in conversation by asking open-ended questions. You can ask who they want to share the meal with or ask them if they’ve tried something like this before. Ask them what might they do to change the recipe, etc.

Safety Precautions
Obviously the kitchen can be an exciting learning place, but it can also be dangerous for children if they are unsupervised. Establish rules about the stove, oven and other appliances and stick with them – whatever works best for your child’s age and your kitchen set-up. Children should never use a stove or oven unsupervised and even with parents right there, it can be easy for hot water or oil to spray up during cooking and cause a burn, so use caution.

Even adults cut themselves with kitchen knives. Young children should use plastic cutlery and be given cutting tasks that match their motor abilities.

Finally, remember hygiene. Any parent or teacher knows what germ carriers our little ones can be. Practice hand washing, avoid double-dipping, and make sure to wash all produce, utensils and counters well.
Child Care Provider Comments
Michelle Jedlick
Michelle Jedlick
I let my daughter help with baking. She has her own stool, and apron. She gets to mix and pour things. She also likes cracking eggs. I encourage her participation as often as possible. If we make cookies, she’ll measure and mix the ingredients. Then she’ll roll out the dough, cut out the cookie shapes and put them on the cookie sheet.
Verdis Ferraro
Verdis Ferraro
Child care provider for 23 years
I will bring one burner in the classroom to control the environment and we’ll make things like pancakes, or bake muffins. I will read directions to them and we’ll talk about what it is we’re going to make. They love the stirring, pouring and mixing parts the best. Each child will get a turn stirring. We’ll all count to ten and they will switch off. We make instant chocolate pudding. They get to stir until it gets thick. Then they will get to eat it or finger paint with it. We also do fresh squeezed orange juice. I let them see what happens when an orange goes in the juicer.
Patsi Simon
Patsi Simon
We bake a lot. I find that my grandson loves to crack eggs. That kind of has become his “job.” I give him his own bowl to do this in because he can’t quite keep the shells from getting in it yet. My granddaughter really likes to stir things. I let her stir the ingredients most of the time. It’s kind of funny with her little tiny hands on the big spoon. We made a blueberry pie recently and I let them separate the blueberries. They tend to do more eating than mixing most of the time, but that’s all right. It’s part of the process.

Simple Recipes Featured Activity:
Simple Recipes
Cooking to Learn Featured Video:
Cooking to Learn
Topic: Child Development
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