Cooking is not only a fun, engaging experience, but can be used as a valuable learning and development tool during the early years.
The benefits of cooking with young children
• Social-emotional development
Hands-on cooking activities help children develop confidence in their skills and abilities. Following a basic recipe encourages self-direction and independence, while also teaching children to follow simple directions and solve problems.
• Physical development
Working with adults in the kitchen can help to develop a child's small muscle control and eye-hand coordination.
• Cognitive development
Cooking helps inspire children's curiosity and thinking skills and encourages them to make predictions and observations. Additionally, it presents an opportunity for young children to begin to understand numbers, through measuring and the use of simple fractions (half, whole, quarters).
• Language development
Kitchen demonstrations are a great opportunity to help expand children's vocabulary. Talk children through each of the activities and ensure they understand which ingredients they're using. Discuss where the food comes from (how is it produced or grown? How do different cultures use the food?) and the purpose of each task. Pose questions that encourage children to articulate what they are doing.
• A positive relationship with food
Learning about food and nutrition from an early age also helps children to develop a positive connection with foods they may not otherwise be exposed to. The more familiar children feel with ingredients, and the more involved they feel in the process, the more likely they are to eat the food at the end.
How to involve young children in cooking
There are a variety of different ways to involve children in cooking at a nursery setting. Try combining a few basic activities that children can complete independently or with a minimum of adult involvement.
These could include:
Start a discussion about healthy foods and unhealthy choices. Using the Eatwell Plate, point out the different food groups that make up a healthy balanced diet. Use the different sections to design a simple but well balanced meal (either breakfast, lunch or dinner), then ask for help writing a shopping list for that meal.
Once you've written a list, take children food shopping to pick up some basic provisions from a local farm, supermarket or market. Spend some time looking at colourful fruits and vegetables, letting them engage with the different textures, flavours, colours and smells. Increasing familiarity with foods helps increase a child's willingness to try them, and is a useful way to address fussy eating.
With your supervision, children will love to help prepare a meal. Don't plan an elaborate project - 5 to 10 minutes might be all that younger children will want to spend on an activity, so ensure the activity is simple and age appropriate. Prep the majority of the food beforehand and give children plenty of time to explore all the ingredients (and the equipment) before you start.
For 2 year olds, involve them in activities such as:
• Washing or drying fruits and vegetables
• Tearing lettuce or spinach leaves for a salad
• Breaking bread into pieces
• Sprinkling grated cheese on top of cooked foods
• Adding the sprinkles or other toppings to cakes
• Helping you "read" a cookbook by turning the pages
• Carrying unbreakable items to the table
For 3 year olds:
• Kneading dough
• Pouring measured liquids
• Mixing dry and wet ingredients together
• Buttering a slice of bread
• Spreading icing on fairy cakes or biscuits
• Crushing biscuits in a plastic bag with a rolling pin
• Serving foods
• Putting food waste in the bin after cooking
For 4-5 year olds:
• Setting the table
• Squeezing the juice from oranges, lemons and limes
• Cutting soft fruit or vegetables with a plastic or blunt knife
• Mashing potato with a potato masher or bananas with the back of a fork
• Crushing garlic in a garlic press
• Measuring dry ingredients
• Scrubbing vegetables (potatoes, mushrooms)
• Rolling out dough using a rolling pin
• Cutting out shapes using cookie cutters
• Cracking and whisking eggs
• Using a sieve
• Clearing the table after a meal