The Right Tools for Cooking with Young Children
Updated: Jul 30
Cooking in the classroom is a common practice in the preschools that I have seen. Of course that might change in the fall of 2020, due to Covid-19. But I am not ready to give up on the dream that one day, we will cook again with our children. Perhaps, one day soon, we can cringe as students lick flour from their fingers and then stick those fingers into the mixing bowl, rather than gasp in fear for our lives and for the lives of our loved ones. Amen.
Cooking is such a big topic, that I wrote more about it here. And I am already thinking of more things that I would like to write when this blog post is over.
There are many different ways to cook with children, and each can accomplish different goals. Cooking can be done in whole groups or in small groups. It can be a choice during free play, or it can be something each child is required to participate in. It can be done "cooking- show style," with all the ingredients pre-measured and ready to pour. It depends on you, your class, the amount of teachers in the room, where the closest kitchen is located, your program, and your goals.
I am going to lay out my preferences, my biggest goal, and how I make that happen.
The biggest goal, personally, is that children can independently perform as many steps as possible .
Now, steps can be broken down into increasingly smaller increments. For example, one step of a recipe might be, adding flour. However, to add flour to a recipe, you need to:
Scoop flour from the bag into the measuring cup.
Fill the measuring cup to the top.
Pour the flour from the measuring cup into the bowl.
Sounds simple, which it is for most adults. And so we often don't take notice of the even smaller steps, the finer motor skills, and the thinking we employ to accomplish the task. In order to successfully scoop flour:
Push your cup deep into the flour (or less so, if you need just a small amount.)
Turn the cup while it is deep within the flour, so as to scoop that flour into your cup.
Lift the cup out slowly, and give it a little shake so that the excess falls into the bag.
Assess if your cup is, indeed, full.
If you need a bit more flour to full your cup, give another scoop, gentler this time, to fill your cup to the top.
If you have cooked with children, then you have probably observed that they don't scoop hard enough; they quickly pull the cup out of the bag, causing flour to fly in several directions; they often pour the flour into the mixing bowl before the cup is filled. If you tell them to scoop some more to fill their cup, they will likely unintentionally pour out what was in their cup already as they head back into the bag.
A quick fix to the above problem, is for the adult to take care of some of those steps. You could fill a cup of flour, hand it to a child, and let them pour it in the bowl. If you have done this with children, then you know that they will be ecstatic with this step of the process. (Pouring.) This will also keep the activity moving along at a nice clip, making sure that children do not need to wait too long between turns, which will help them stay engaged longer. They will feel a strong sense of ownership and accomplishment. They will have engaged in a communal activity. It will also help to reduce the amount of flour that ends up on the table, on the floor, on your clothes, and on your students' clothes.
The downside is that they will have missed out on the opportunity to take part in more of the above steps.
Another quick fix, is to do all the actions with the child, hand over hand. Namely, your hand over his/her hand. While they hold the cup, you push and scoop that cup where it needs to go. This will have many of the same benefits as the previous solution, while allowing them to do more, and maybe get a feel for some of the steps.
Depending on your patience (you are part of the classroom community), your time frame, the personality of your students, the support you have from other adults, these fixes might be the best choice. They might ensure that more children are more involved with the cooking activity.
I would like to offer another fix. It takes longer (which means more waiting children), and is often messier, but it means that children will do more of the steps, and do them more independently. All you need, are more cups and spoons. (And patience, and a large stash of paper towels.)
To fill one cup of flour:
Give a child 1 cup measuring cup, and a 1/4 cup measuring cup.
Have the child scoop flour from the bag using the 1/4 cup scoop.
Instruct/guide the child to pour from the 1/4 to the 1 cup scoop.
The child repeats step 3, until the cup is entirely filled.
And, of course, you can modify this for smaller amounts. If you only need a 1/4 cup, a child can use a tablespoon to fill it up.
Another little tip: As the bag of flour gets emptier, tear the top of the bag, fold it over, or cut it off, to help children reach where the flour is.
Teachers are still there to offer an extra hand; to hold open a bag; to hold a cup while children scoop.
How about liquids?
They are a bit trickier, and so, more often, I will employ the first strategy, and pour a spoonful of a liquid, and hand it to a child. I might do the liquids myself. But, if you have a small pitcher, an extra measuring cup, or just a plain, plastic cup, you can add a small amount of liquid to those containers, and then have children pour them into a measuring cup.
If, and when, (mostly when) there is a spill, other children can have the job of getting paper towels and wiping it up.
There is always a balance. Because this approach takes longer, I sometimes lose a participant or two (or more) along the way. I will often be less aware of other children in the classroom who are not cooking. (A luxury that I have been able to afford with our student-teacher ratio.)
And so, as with a lot of teaching, there is not a hard right and wrong. Each strategy has its own benefits, and its own costs. But, since we go to school every day (when there is no global pandemic), we can use different methods on different days.
We can even get it wrong one day, and show up again, and do it better. Either way, with cooking, there is a tasty treat at the end of the process.