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Cooking with the help of small children may be an act of bravery but it’s also a gift. As your children grow into teenagers with hollow legs, facing a pantry of possibilities, they won’t need to resort to pre-packaged boxes, but will have the skills to stir, boil and sauté their way to healthier and tastier options.
We know that children need to maintain a balanced diet to grow up healthy and strong and meet the high energy needs of their growing bodies.
Involving them in the kitchen and having them handle foods, touch them, taste them and as they get older, learn to cook with them can be an adventure, a fun part of their play time and a great learning experience.
Hélène Hilton is a qualified Early Years and Primary teacher and has a Masters of Education in Children’s Literature. She is an editor at Dorling Kindersley (DK) and is behind production of their book Look I’m a Cook.
“I had only been working at DK for a couple of weeks, fresh from my teaching days, when we started talking about making a new series of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) books.
“As an Early Years teacher, I would teach science to four or five year olds through sensory play and cooking. Cooking is absolutely a science and an art, as well as being fun sensory exploration.
“As a team, we all agreed that children have an innate scientific curiosity so we set about creating books that nurtured and encouraged them to experiment, play, and learn.”
Celebrating the joy, love and fascination of food
Hélène says cooking is something to be celebrated.
“Healthy eating is such a huge issue internationally and many adults have a difficult relationship with food. But children need to know that food can be full of joy, love, and fascination.
“In Look I’m a Cook, we tried to use as many fresh ingredients as possible and the recipes are designed so that a child can follow most of the steps with minimal adult involvement. This means that the child can lead the cooking and be proud of what they have made.
“Throughout the book, we encourage the child and carer to ask questions about the ingredients and really pay attention and value them. Food is amazing and cooking fresh, delicious recipes can remind us of that.”
Parents often question whether they are putting their children on the path to success as fussy toddlers refuse random foods or inexplicably spend a week rejecting any food unless it is red. But by taking a deep breath and following some sensible guidelines our children will form healthy eating habits that set them up to continue making good, wholesome nutritious food choices.
Eating is a time for learning and exploring. When a baby first starts solids they are getting most of their nutrition from breast milk or infant formula so any refusal to eat is not important and you can easily try another time.
As children get older it is also normal for them to be fussy with food. It’s part of growing up. Children may eat more some days than others or take a while to try new foods. Try not to pressure them. Simply let them touch, smell or taste it and try again another time if they refuse. If they refuse a meal, you can re-offer it at the next meal or as a snack.
Children are usually fascinated by cooking so capturing their interest in the kitchen can help overcome their fussiness and provide opportunities to re-offer foods or to try new ones.
Children’s curiosity about cooking should be encouraged by letting them help out in the kitchen. Get them involved as much as you safely can and be patient when they get it wrong or make a mess. There’s no sensory fun without a little bit of mess.
They will learn so much and have fun doing it. Not to mention the huge sense of pride they will have in helping you create something.
“I remember kitchens having a special kind of magic when I was a child. A lot of recipes in the book came directly from things I remember making, and loving, as a child,” Hélène says.
“Even simple things, like freezing a small pot of yogurt with a spoon sticking out of it, turned it into a special treat over the summer holidays. It was so much more exciting that just getting ice cream out of the freezer because I had MADE it and I felt proud. That (very, very simple) recipe is in the book now.”
By cooking with your child, you encourage their creativity, investigative skills, critical thinking, and they will learn new words. Perhaps most important, letting your child cook and explore food will grow their confidence.
Combining recipes and sensory play
Hélène says the challenge with Look I’m a Cook is to create a book of recipes that are really play activities.
Hands-on play is a great teaching tool because children learn best through real-life, sensory experiences.
“This means that each recipe has a dual purpose: children are working towards an end goal, a yummy treat or dish, but more importantly they are also having fun, discovering, and learning along the way,” she says.
“Food is all about the senses and we’ve made them front and centre throughout Look I’m a Cook.
“The book is full of playful questions that encourage your little one to use their all senses as they cook and eat to push their understanding a bit further. Sensory play is such a natural form of learning that it means children can pick up difficult scientific concepts, such as freezing and melting, by seeing, feeling, and exploring.
“Different children like all sorts of different activities in the kitchen. That’s why we open the book by asking the adult to let their child lead the direction of play.
“Some children love the method of following a recipe step by step but others can learn just as much by following their curiosity and going down their own path.
“Our job as adults is to encourage and extend them in their learning, not to restrict them. Each recipe in the book is a starting point. Where will your child take you?”
Learning in the kitchen is not restricted to cooking. Children are also learning science, language, math and exploring their senses.
“There is so much to learn from food that the sky really is the limit,” Hélène says.
Exploring the science of food and cooking
In Look I’m a Cook we talk a lot about science, such as how temperature changes food, how yeast works, what nutrients are in ingredients, where our food come from, and how human senses work, but that is just a starting point.
“By cooking with your child, you encourage their creativity, investigative skills, critical thinking, and they will learn new words. Perhaps most important, letting your child cook and explore food will grow their confidence.”
Parents often worry about allowing small children in the kitchen around sharp objects and the heat of stoves and ovens.
However, with some simple safety precautions it is possible to safely cook with under-fives.
Your child should never be cooking unsupervised. But that’s not to say they shouldn’t be allowed to participate.
Talk about safety together. Before you start cooking, look around your kitchen together and talk about what could be dangerous and what you both will do about these dangers.
As you cook, show your little one what you would normally do – how you would wash your hands, how you would use a sharp knife, and talk through how you assess risks.
“Most of this will be completely subconscious for you but try to talk about it anyway,” Hélène says.
“For example, you could say to your child, ‘We know that the oven is hot, so how should we make sure we don’t burn ourselves when we take the bread out?’
“Let them assess the risks, rather than avoid them completely. Make sure your child knows they can ask for help whenever they need it.”