On cooking with kids

Cooking is a great experience for kids. There is so much learning. Literacy, numeracy, science, health, culture – it is all there.

Early childhood educators know this, and it is very common for them to include cooking experiences in their programs. Of course, a cooking experience suitable for a classroom setting is not the same as something you might whip up at home. Too many cooks. Involving all those children actively involves a different set of skills, recipes and equipment.

Then there is the question of allergies and intolerances. We have an epidemic of allergies in twenty-first century Australia, particularly among young children. Cooking for a group has become a minefield of competing needs. We might have to cater for vegetarians, vegans, halal or kosher, for coeliacs, for those who may suffer anaphylaxis or those with allergies to nuts, eggs, seafood, milk, kiwifruit, strawberries or in fact almost anything you care to mention.

Luckily, there has been a concurrent explosion of online cooking sites. It is very easy nowadays to trawl the net for recipes, and to find specialty recipe collections. There are sites devoted to allergy-friendly cooking.

For teachers, cooking is one type of experience that really has to be planned in advance. Not only do you need the ingredients to hand, you also have to work out how to adapt the method to include all the children in the processes. You need to be sure you have enough time in the session to complete the dish. You need to know it is going to work.

The most important thing is to make something you actually know how to cook. When you are in charge of a group of children is not the time to start experimenting with a new recipe or unfamiliar ingredients. Don’t make your kinder class the first time you try to use yeast, or bake with gluten-free flour.

Test your recipe. If trying it out at home is too much of a burden, chances are you are not really a confident enough cook to manage it as a learning experience. But your co-educator might be. Maybe s/he could be in charge of the cooking, and you could manage the turn-taking, noticeing, talk, photography etc.

It helps to think about what learning you imagine and would like to focus on. Will you be asking the children to read the recipe? Will you let them live with mistakes? Do you want them to write or document what they do? Is the focus the science? Is there a way to highlight the process you want them to notice? Will you need photos? Who will take them if you have your hands dirty? Of course, it depends on the age of the children as well as why you are doing the activity. There is a lot going on when you cook, and it will be harder than usual to think on your feet, especially if you want edible food as well as good hands-on learning.

In my kindergarten classes, I have found some simple ways to involve everyone are (depending on the food being prepared):
• have chlidren take it in turns to add small quantities of the ingredient from a pre-measured lot
• pass the bowl around and take it in turns to stir
• divide the class into groups and repeat the same experience with more than one group
• knead or roll small quantities so everyone gets to work with a bit
• put individual serves on baking paper with the child’s name written on it
• have each child decorate or finish an individual serve
• have everyone bring a contribution (eg a piece of fruit or a vegetable) to add to the dish
• send everyone out to the garden to pick a herb

A useful tip I picked up from the Kitchen Garden program is not to expect to be able to grow enough of a single ingredient in your own garden to feed a whole class. Pick what you have grown yourself with the children, and buy in enough extra to make up the quantity you need.

Here are some allergy friendly cooking sites that I like:

These are mostly gluten-free, as that is my particular bias. I haven’t yet come across one that specialises in cooking with groups of young children. If anyone knows of one, please tell me.

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