I distinctly remember the first cookbook that was my very own – I received it in the 6th grade from a book order and I could not wait to try out the recipes. They were all very easy and could be done on my own, yet made me feel like a chef in a fancy restaurant. I would peel, chop, and mix, all the while talking out loud to myself the way I had seen chefs on TV do as they explained their culinary masterpieces. The finished result left me with a huge sense of pride: I had only a few ingredients but look what I had made! Each ingredient was boring on its own but when mixed together I had made a gourmet meal! Sometimes I wouldn’t eat the completed dish myself (one recipe was a slaw of carrots, mayonnaise, and raisins) but that didn’t matter. The sense of fulfillment and confidence I gained as I worked meant more to me than what I was actually making.
These days, cooking and baking top my list of “hobbies” (which is great because my family seems to want to eat every night). But even if it’s not for one of our daily meals, I love when I have uninterrupted times on the weekends to try out new recipes or just bake for enjoyment. The best part is that I now have two little helpers (ages 9 and 4) to work with me. From the time they were old enough to sit up, I would put them on the counter or in a high chair and let them help me any way they could. Even if they couldn’t hold a spoon, they would sit nearby and I would narrate my process to them. This evolved through the years as they graduated to being the “stirrer,” adding the ingredients themselves, and gathering the materials needed. Today, my older son can make a simple recipe almost entirely independently. To watch his face as he serves us brownies or when he delivers a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he has made for his brother overwhelms me and the saying “food is love” fills my head.
As children cook, there are also so many other skills (especially in areas of social and cognitive) that are introduced and built: math (measuring, counting ingredients such as how many eggs needed); science (changes in matter, cause and effect); and literacy (reading a recipe, introducing new vocabulary words, understanding beginning, middle, end). Think of all the ways this can be further explored – as you head to the grocery store you can make your children their own “grocery lists,” with the name and picture of certain ingredients they are in charge of getting. They can cross off each one as they find it and put it in the cart. Children who help with cooking also may be a little bit more willing to try new foods if they have had a hand in the preparation. Cooking also incorporates and awakens many senses as children look at bright colors, listen to mixers whirring or a knife chopping, or smell fragrant spices.
In the classroom, teachers often incorporate cooking into their curriculum. Sometimes it may be a food that is mentioned in their feature book; other times it may be because the teacher has his or her own passion for cooking. They may make cookies to thank another group for inviting them to play, or to serve to parents the next morning at drop off. Most often, the recipes are something inedible but equally enjoyable. Children excitedly show classroom visitors the play dough they made together that morning. As the group is invested in and connected to the making of the dough, you can observe them feeling a sense of “ownership,” taking extra special care with it at clean up.
The confidence children build as they take part in following a recipe and see the results is truly one of the best aspects of cooking. The time spent with a parent is even more valuable. I know that in my house, cooking together is “the great equalizer”– with my boys’ age span and energy levels, someday it is hard to find the one thing we can all do together. The moment I say, “Who wants to bake cookies?” the world stops in my cozy kitchen. The process may be a little messier and take a little longer than it should, but the memories we are making (and the yummy results!) make it more than worthwhile.