Who says all learning has to take place at a desk – or whatever place your family has designated as the schoolroom?
While many homeschool families intuitively know that the whole world is a learning lab, it’s easy to forget that if you feel pressured to “finish the curriculum” before the end of the year.
But everyday meal preparation and special holiday cooking can provide ample opportunities for learning – both academically and as a life skill.
My mother hated cooking (for some odd reason), so I didn’t grow up in the kitchen. As a consequence, when I got married, I had to teach myself to cook, since I wasn’t taught that life skill as a child.
Far more importantly, being in the kitchen together helps forge a special bond with your children. And there’s no replacement for doing that while they’re young.
What’s more, every child loves and adores their parents, and wants to be just like them. So teaching them to cook “just like you” builds their self-esteem as well.
Your child will benefit academically
Depending on how far you want to delve into it, you can teach many lessons through cooking.
1. Math skills. This is probably the first one that comes to mind. After all, there are ratios, proportions, adding, measuring, and multiplying (if doubling or tripling a recipe).
2. Reading. Have your children practice their reading skills by reading you the directions and ingredients in the recipe. Or get more creative, and make something you read about in a child’s book. There are also some fun children’s cookbooks, but be forewarned that they tend to skew toward sugary high-carb recipes.
3. Writing. Have your children practice their handwriting and copying skills by copying old recipes onto notecards. You’ll have a great keepsake, and they get to practice their writing skills.
4. History. Connect them to those who went before them by talking about special family recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Or maybe you have a personal favorite. Tell them why it’s special to you. You can also make recipes that come from certain periods in U.S. history, or recipes from different countries of the world (for history and geography). Who doesn’t like to cook and eat as part of school?
Obviously, these general educational applications can be used any time of the year.
But connecting emotionally through holiday cooking can do all this and more. The foods we eat at holiday meals help make the holiday meaningful. Why not share the experience of cooking and eating it?
Sure, it’s probably faster to do it yourself (at least in the short term). But set that aside for a time. After all, your goal is the emotional connection… and if you include them now, you’re training them to do those things independently later.
Not only that, but you may find that cooking with your little ones is a stress reliever. Focus on the potential for comic relief.
Want your kids to make healthier food choices? Here’s how…
If your child is a picky eater, you’ll probably find that they’re more open-minded to trying foods that they’ve helped prepare. The more they’re involved in the preparation, the more likely they are to try new foods. It helps make them curious and involved in the process.
It’s not typical holiday fare, but one way to pique their interest in eating veggies is to involve them in growing sprouts. Sprouts pack a boatload of nutrition into just a few bites, and they’re extremely budget-friendly too. It’s downright affordable to eat organic when you grow sprouts yourself.
And sprouts are ready in just a few days, so your kids get a quick reward for their effort and involvement. They’re less likely to lose interest when it only takes 5 days to go from “planting” to “harvest.”
Cooking with each child individually, or all together – which is better?
A recent study published in Early Childhood Research and Practice found that cooking is an effective teaching method for a child’s developmental and academic skills.[i]
But they wanted to find out whether the benefit (academically) was greater with mom and one child, or with mom and a pair of siblings.
To test this, they had 12 parent-child pairs, and 15 parent-child-child triads (2 children). In the pairs, the child was age 4, while the triads included a 4-year-old and a 6- to 8-year-old.
Researchers visited the home of each group as they performed their pre-assigned cooking task.
From a teaching perspective, the one-on-one was far more effective than the sibling groups. When more than one child was present, the focus shifted to managing each child’s participation in the activity and role negotiations. Those with just one child participating had greater positive emotional focus.
How can you pull this off in a large family? Well, maybe have separate times for each child. Or have a different mealtime helper each day of the week.
Of course, during the holidays you may want to do more group cooking. Just know that you’ll be more in a management role than a one-on-one coaching /interacting role.
As they get older and more competent, one or two children can take responsibility for an entire recipe. And teens can be trained to do that for an entire meal.
Recipe for Successful Cooking with Young Ones
So, how to involve your children in the holiday cooking and preparation? Here are some proven tips.
- Have them help create the menu.
- Have them help make the shopping list. Teach them how to work through the menu, noting what you already have and what you need to buy.
- When you shop, have your children help you pick out the fruits and vegetables on your list.
- Teach them to read labels. (Quick trick: produce labels that begin with the number “9” are organic, and haven’t been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. As for packaged food labels, that’s the subject of an entire article. But your best bet is to stick with veggies and high-quality protein anyway.)
- Let your children help set the table. They can even make some of the decorations for the table or serving counter.
- Cultivate their creativity by having them create special names for the food you’ll be cooking and serving. You never know what crazy name they might come up with…
- Involve your children in cleanup also. Make it a game if you need to. For example, have them count how many things they put away or load into the dishwasher.
- Create kitchen “masterpieces” together to give as budget-friendly gifts. From soup or drink mixes in canning jars tied with ribbons, to cookies or other baked goods, it’s another excuse for fun times in the kitchen. And it’s guilt-free, because they’re learning just as much from this as they would from a book.
During the Christmas season, it’s easy to find yourself running in a million directions. Cooking together gives you a chance to step away from the frenzy and reconnect, so you develop cherished memories that’ll stay with you for life.
The benefits are so far-reaching that this is a no-brainer. Make cooking together a memorable time of sharing love!
[i] Finn, Lauren and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler. 2013. “Young Children’s Engagement and Learning Opportunities in a Cooking Activity with Parents and Older Siblings.” Early Childhood Research & Practice 15(1).