Editor's note: The author of this piece is also a contributor to Culikid, an organization included in the links below.
Cooking together is a wonderful way for parents and caregivers to bond with kids both every day and during holidays where food is the main event (hello turkey day!). Plus, it's a great way to teach kids skills that will be useful for life. If you want to get cooking with your kid but are worried about getting started, whether your child is neurotypical or has special needs, here are three simple tips to get kids and caregivers cozy in the kitchen.
Teach Kids Where Items Belong
If your child has limited experience cooking in the kitchen, they may not know the names of all the appliances, tools, ingredients, etc. and where they are located. Before having them learn how to cook, it's helpful to show them where everything is. This will encourage them to be more independent when gathering items before preparing a meal and to clean up and put things away when they're done. Here are a few ways your child can practice identifying and locating items:
- Have your child assist you with putting away the groceries after shopping.
- Encourage your child to gather all the ingredients and tools before you cook a meal.
- Play a scavenger game with your child where they have to locate items throughout the kitchen. Raise the stakes by using a timer or providing a reward at the end. Find a free PDF with instructions for a food scavenger hunt game.
You might notice that certain items are easier for your child to find than others. Children often use distinguishable features, such as the colors of a label or the shape of an item, to identify them. However, this could sometimes mean that a child might choose an item incorrectly because it looks correct, but isn't. For example, a child might choose a sack of sugar instead of a sack of flour because they look similar. If this happens, it's a great learning opportunity to teach them how to pay attention to details and use other clues like smell, weight, the text on label, etc. to confirm if they have the right item.
Practice Using Kitchen Tools
With the number of tools that are often used to cook, like knives, vegetable peelers, scissors, blenders, measuring cups and more, it can be daunting for kids to have to learn them all. That's why it's best to choose simple recipes that require only a few (one to three) kitchen tools. For example, a simple vegetable soup or salad is a great introductory recipe that a child and caregiver can make together because there is room for improvisation. For example, if a child adds too much seasoning to either recipe, they can simply add more water or broth to the soup and more vegetables to the salad to dilute it. When it comes to cutting vegetables, precise cutting is not necessary because they break down in soups and get mixed in between salad greens. It's also worth noting that many of the veggies that go into soups and salads are of different shapes and sizes, which gives older kids time to practice learning how to use vegetable peelers and hold knives well, and younger kids the chance to practice naming all those shapes!
Make Modifications as Needed
Cooking requires countless skills that go beyond physical capability; from cognitive skills (such as multitasking and addition) and emotional skills (such as being patient and having self-control when things go wrong). Cooking is also a sensory-rich experience and some children may find managing these sensations is difficult. Thankfully, modifications are possible in any scenario! Here are just a few suggestions.
If completing physical tasks is tough for your child, it might be helpful to invest in tools that can complete the task easily. For example, if they struggle to use a knife, consider having them use a food chopper or slicer. You can also try adding grips to handles so that they can be used with less force or adding non-slip mats (or a wet paper towel) under cutting boards or pots to prevent them from moving around. Paying attention to your child's posture is also helpful! Simple modifications like having them stand on a tool, sit in a supportive chair with a footrest or getting them utensils that are small enough for their hands can really improve their physical performance and make them happier cooks.
If your child has difficulty performing the cognitive tasks of cooking, such as following multiple steps, staying organized or doing math, start with breaking information down. For example, when reading a recipe, have them follow along with a highlighter or read one sentence at a time and then complete that specific task before moving on. If they have trouble with reading, finding recipes with visuals or following along to a cooking video can be helpful.
Even for grown-ups, cooking can be frustrating! There are so many things that could go wrong and having to wait for something to finish cooking can be a challenge. That's why it's important to have kids work on their self-awareness and self-regulation skills during cooking. To work on this, try having your child identify their feelings during cooking tasks and working through them. You can also use coping strategies like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, counting, singing, squeezing a stress ball (or dough!) and talking.
There are children who absolutely love certain sensations involved with cooking and kids who simply cannot tolerate them. Sometimes, when a child loves or seeks out certain sensations, it may be difficult for them to control their impulses during cooking. On the other hand, some children who can't tolerate certain sensations might experience sensory overload, which can result in a meltdown or them shutting down. So before getting in the kitchen, review the recipe you're following for any specific sensory experiences your child might have trouble with and if necessary, provide modifications to prevent any challenging behaviors, like having a sensory avoider wear gloves if they don't like the feel of a certain ingredient. For kids who love some sensations, you might have them engage with their preferred cooking task for a specific amount of time with a timer to encourage impulse control. Some websites also provide recipes with information on how to increase or decrease sensory input when cooking. Regardless of what modifications you provide, try to encourage your child to practice emotional regulation skills while engaging or avoiding a sensation.
Here is an example of a simple salad recipe with suggestions for modifications depending on your child.
Simple Green Salad
- 2 cups of leafy greens (such as spinach or lettuce)
- 1-2 cucumbers
- 1 cup of cherry tomatoes
- 1/2 a red or white onion
- 1-2 tablespoons of fresh herbs (such parsley, cilantro, basil or dill)
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar (optional) or lemon (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Before starting, count out and measure all the ingredients with your child. This is also a great way to get even the littlest cooks involved. When measuring out the liquids, you might need to remind kids to try to be steady. It can be helpful to measure the ingredients over the bowl in case of spillage. Once measured, drizzle the olive oil and red wine vinegar or lemon into a medium bowl.
- Rinse all the veggies, turning them around in your hands as you clean them and scanning them for any spots you might have missed. Once cleaned, pat them dry.
- Place the greens into a medium bowl. If desired, you can shred the greens into bite-sized pieces first.
- Peel the cucumbers. If your child is learning how to use a peeler, ask them to hold the cucumber in their non-dominant hand and the peeler in their dominant hand. They should start by placing the peeler at the top of the cucumber and peeling downwards away from them. After they've peeled one section, ask them to turn the cucumber slightly to peel a new section until all the skin is off. You can also teach them by asking them to follow a video on how to use a peeler.
- Cut the cucumbers. The easiest — and safest — for beginners to cut is to slice. To start, ask your child to hold the knife in their dominant hand, tucking their fingers. Their non-dominant hand can hold the cucumber with their fingers gripping the cucumber in a "bear claw" fashion. Add the cucumber slices to the bowl with the liquids. Add the cherry tomatoes.
- Slice the onion. Slicing onions can be tricky, even for adults. It helps to slice it in half first, so the bottom part is stable. Cut the ends and slice it, reminding your child to hold the onion and knife the same way as when they were cutting the cucumbers. Break apart the individual slices and add them to the bowl.
- Pull off the leaves of the herbs; you can ask your youngest cooks to help with this. You can either chop the leaves with a knife or practice tearing the leaves into smaller pieces. Once done, add them to the bowl.
- Stir up all the ingredients in the bowl with a large spoon. Have kids taste the salad and sprinkle salt and pepper on it to their liking. Make sure to have them taste the salad in between seasoning to prevent over-seasoning. If your child adds too much salt or pepper, add more leafy greens, onions, cucumbers or tomatoes. Enjoy!
- Accessible Chef: A collection of resources to teach basic cooking skills to individuals with disabilities. Includes free visual recipes — or you can create your own.
- CookABILITY: Video series features accessible recipes for people with learning disabilities. Created by United Response, a national charity that supports people with learning disabilities, mental health needs and physical disabilities to take control of their lives.
- Food Hero Cooking Show: Kid-friendly cooking videos not specific to children with disabilities.
- GrowingGreat: Organization that serves communities in Los Angeles and provides opportunities for children to garden, learn about nutrition, and more. Their GrowingGreat in the Kitchen program offers cooking videos in Spanish and English.