Why cooking with kids has all the right ingredients… benefits of inviting kids into the kitchen

Caucasian father helping disabled son standing in medical standerto bake cookies in the kitchen.

All parents can relate to the daily struggle of encouraging kids to choose healthy food options. For parents of kids with complex special needs, that challenge can become even more complicated. But while encouraging your kids to become involved i n the cooking might seem like a sure-fire way to turn an everyday chore into an exercise in frustration, there’s increasing evidence that it’s well worth the effort.

Many parents already know that children who are encouraged to help with cooking will generally show a greater preference for fruits and vegetables than those that are not involved with kitchen activities. While broadening kids’ diet is a huge reward in itself, for parents of kids with a disability, there are a raft of other benefits to asking them to lend a helping hand in the kitchen.

  • Cooking teaches kids about nutrition and exposes them to ingredients and textures they might otherwise refuse.
  • The successful completion of a task like making a meal boosts their independence and self-esteem.
  • Children with intellectual disabilities can experience a learning opportunity through real-life application. Measuring, time-keeping and prioritising are all skills that can be learned through the cooking process.
  • Kids with sensory processing challenges can benefit from experiencing and describing the smells, textures and tastes in the kitchen.
  • Cooking helps to develop gross motor skills. For kids who are sensitive to touch, using tools to roll, mash or mix the ingredients can enable them to enjoy the process without having to touch the food.
  • It’s innately self-rewarding. Once they’re done, they get to taste their yummy creations.
  • It’s fun, so kids are learning without realising it.

Does it come with an instruction manual?

Luckily, there are resources out there with advice for how parents can involve their kids in daily kitchen life. Deborah French is a parent, author and mother to four kids, two with special needs. Her experiences cooking with her kids led her to write The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs, an illustrated book which introduces children with special needs to the fundamentals of food preparation, healthy eating and cookery skills.
According to Deborah, her ‘aha’ moment came when baking cookies with her son Henry who has high functioning autism. Then four, Henry had been assessed as having low muscle tone and hypermobility, coupled with poor gross and fine motor skills. She noticed that when working with the dough, his movements were controlled and his attention and fine motor skills greatly improved. For her daughter Amariah, who has Down’s Syndrome, cooking with her mum provided an opportunity to gradually build confidence in her ability to complete tasks independently.
Deborah spoke with BBC Good Food and shared specific tips about cooking with a sensory-seeking child. She suggests planning the cooking environment to allow for some triggers to be readily available so kids can satisfy their need for stimulation in a controlled way, without letting it dominate the activity.

Cooking as therapy-

Many people will attest to the power of cooking as a type of escapism, a daily meditation or mindfulness exercise. For adults and children alike, there’s also increasing evidence that cooking can be hugely beneficial in treating a range of mental and behavioral conditions including anxiety, depression and ADHD. The practice even has a name; Culinary Arts TherapyCulinary Therapy aims to connect traditional talk therapy with cooking, creating an opportunity for mindfulness, and allowing the participant to step outside of themselves and really focus on a task. It can be particularly beneficial for teens, providing a sanctuary from chaotic emotions they may be working through or an opportunity to work with others, helping to alleviate feelings of social isolation. It also lends itself to a type of therapy known as behavioral activation where positive activity is boosted, helping to curb passivity and encourage goal creation.

Need a hand in the kitchen?

Want to give it a go but not sure where to start? Or maybe you’ve tried it before with disastrous results. This resource from the Raising Children Network provides some ideas on the different age-appropriate activities that kids can take part in, as well as links to simple, healthy recipes to get you started.

It’s also important to keep the following in mind:

  • Allow yourself to get inspiration by what’s already in your fridge rather than setting your sights on an ambitious dish that requires a lot of ingredients.
  • Don’t focus on perfection – it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
  • Pay attention to your kids’ interests and cook food that you know they might like to eat.
  • Take things one step at a time – teach your kids a specific technique in the process and focus on that, rather than trying to follow a recipe.
  • Allow your kids to experiment with textures and ingredients, even if you know it may not produce the best culinary outcome!

Time-poor parents may not be able to cook with kids as much as they’d like. That’s where great support comes in.

Leanne Windsor is one of a number of independent support workers offering their services directly to clients via Mable. She works with both young kids and school leavers, and says that the greatest benefit of incorporating cooking into their support is in the confidence that it builds.


“My motivation is to help my clients develop the skills they need to feel confident cooking independently and to understand that they don’t need someone to do everything for them. For my younger clients, it can also be an effective way to encourage them to explore different foods that they may not currently like to eat.” says Leanne.

 

Want to find an independent support worker like Leanne who can help your kids build their kitchen skills? Search via Mable, a safe and easy online platform where you can connect with skilled support workers in your local community.