Recipes consist of a sequence of events, ingredients, and tasks to complete to result in a delicious finished product. Cooking with children can help develop executive functioning skills which include the elements of working memory, reasoning, impulse control, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution skills. Practicing the steps in cooking or food preparation can benefit a child who is developing executive function skills. Even though the steps are simple and few when cooking with toddlers, it is good practice to complete step-by-step directions, planning and attention to sequencing. Young children are not born with innate executive functioning skills but are instead born with the tools they need to build them. The more exposure to exercising these types of skills, the better the development of their executive functioning.
While helping to support and develop executive function it is important to keep in mind that these are children and they are not as developed or skilled as adults or older children. They will need help understanding the steps, remembering the ingredients, holding the tools and more. Sharing, waiting, and taking turns may also be a challenge that will change over time with more refined executive skills in impulse control. Toddlers will have more challenges in this area, but as children grow they will begin to cooperate with sharing, waiting, and taking turns with ease. School-age children may even create roles to follow within their group when a cooking activity is introduced.
Executive function and cooking really go hand-in-hand in obvious and subtle ways. There are obvious elements such as following steps, drawing on past experiences, resisting impulses (to taste food or fling food, etc.), and sometimes improvising. What’s not as obvious in cooking is the memory factor. Children may cook one recipe and be able to apply the skills and information learned during that experience in future endeavors. When eating a meal with similar ingredients they may recall that the bottom of asparagus stalks are hard and fibrous so they should be snapped or chopped off. When choosing the best serving utensils for salad they may recall that spinach tends to bunch together, but the grapes in the salad will fall to the bottom of the bowl. These may seem like insignificant automatic pieces of information to adults but children are just developing their catalogue of information like this. Cooking teaches them about the world in a hands-on experiential way.
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