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How Does Cooking Help Kids Learn?

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

Getting a meal on the table for your family can be chaotic – so getting your child into the kitchen to help might feel like the last thing you have the time, energy, or desire to do. While cooking with kids does take a little longer (and can be super messy!), it’s also a way to build your relationship – and to build their reading and arithmetic skills. “Cooking is one great way to teach a whole lot of concepts, like math and science,” says Cooking with Kids program director Bethany Muller.

Slicing a pizza lets your kid see exactly why fractions are so important in the world, and a simple baking soda and vinegar volcano can set the stage to teach the science. Letting your child help in the kitchen also can boost reading skills and improve reading comprehension, and tasks like rolling pie dough or peeling veggies can help them to develop the dexterity and muscle memory that makes those tasks second nature. Cooking together also teaches your child to, well, cook – obviously – and that’s a practical skill they can use long after they’ve left your kitchen.

In HelloJoey’s “You & Your Lil’ Sous Chef” kit, we look at all the ways cooking helps kids learn, offering tips and suggestions for supporting your child’s success in the kitchen at each stage of development. We also talk with the experts about how to build your child’s cooking skills step-by-step without hovering or micromanaging – which can keep a sweet experience from turning sour.

What can kids learn in the kitchen?

Almost every task your kid takes on the kitchen will teach them something, from food safety to manual dexterity to exactly how food goes from being groceries to dinner. Of course, older kids can practice their reading and math skills – but that doesn’t mean little ones can’t learn a little bit, too. There are plenty of fun activities and age appropriate jobs children at every stage can take on that will help them start developing their physical skills and get comfortable kitchen.

In fact, there are two distinctive types of learning that are enhanced when kids cook: explicit and implicit.

  • Explicit learning happens when you spend time studying or really focusing on something to commit it to memory – like teaching your toddler the names of all the fruits and vegetables or helping your older chef look up the different substitutions they can use for baking soda.

  • Implicit learning may start out with thought and focus, but eventually, your muscle memory takes over and you do it automatically. It might take you 10 tries, but eventually you can “eyeball” how thick the latke batter should be or know exactly what to put in to Great Grandma’s secret sauce – and when it’s ready – without following a recipe.

Studies have shown that when kids are exposed to implicit learning tasks at an early age, especially between four and 12, it helps to increase their proficiency in those tasks. That means that, just like you’d teach your child a new language using listening and talking, you can let them spend in the kitchen and build up their muscle memory to help them become fluent in cooking.

How cooking improves reading skills

Along with building a knowledge of how to cook and the skills to do it, cooking can help your child learn reading skills and improve their reading comprehension. You may have learned the hard way – by curdling eggs after adding them at the wrong time or finding you don’t have any chicken half way through a chicken pot pie – how important it is to read a recipe start to finish before cooking. Beginning as soon as your child is a toddler, you can develop their reading skills through cooking by bringing them into the kitchen and getting them involved.

  • Toddlers: Read the recipe out loud and look at any pictures together, then let your child pour water in pans or play with a few carrots or potatoes while you tell them what you’re doing. They’ll absorb the process, preparing them to participate down the road.

  • Preschoolers: Get a kids cookbook with picture recipes, or read a recipe out loud and help your child get everything on the ingredient list. They can match items to pictures in the cookbook, or you can tell them what you need and let them collect each item.

  • Early readers: Early and novice readers should be able to read recipes on their own, so let them give you instructions to get everything you need. “With younger kids who are beginning readers, simply read the list of ingredients at the top of the recipe, and then check you have everything,” suggests Bethany.

  • Developing readers: Seven- to nine-year-olds are better with phonics and word structure but may still need help understanding instructions. Make recipes you’ve made before so your child will start to memorize it (explicit learning) and some of the steps will become second nature (implicit learning).

  • Fluent readers: Kids nine to 15 can read a recipe, gather ingredients, and perform many of the steps on their own. They might need help with specific cooking terms or concepts, but their reading comprehension should be fairly strong. Let them take the wheel as much as it safely possible.

Can you teach kids math in the kitchen?

Cooking also can be a way to teach your child math – specifically when it comes to fractions. Studies show that students in the US have more difficulty with fractions than students from other countries, but your child will need to understand them in order to learn higher mathematics. Working together in the kitchen cooking or baking gives you a great hands-on opportunity to show your child exactly how fractions work – and why they matter.

Schools often start teaching fractions somewhere around third grade, but you can introduce them much earlier with cooking or baking. To make it fun, let your child find a recipe they want to bake, and then use those measuring cups and spoons to practice some real world math. Create a mini-lesson about wholes, halves, quarters, and eighths – then, ask your kid which of your tools you can use to get an odd measurement, like three-fourths teaspoon of salt. If they have trouble, break down the simple fractions together and figure out what to do.

Along with actually cooking and baking, serving is another great chance to reinforce how fractions work. Use your cookies, cakes, pizzas, and quesadillas to illustrate how to divide a whole into equal parts – like thirds, fourths, and eighths. Even if your slices aren’t exact, your child will get a practical, visual idea of what fractions are, and why they’re so important for getting the biggest piece of cake!

App Tip

Cooking can help kids learn reading, math, and other skills – but to set up kids for success, it’s important to choose tasks that align with their developmental abilities. Your four year old may not be able to chop garlic because it’s so small, and their frustration or failure might discourage them from cooking at all. As child cooking instructor Tiffany Cavegn puts it, “Set all expectations aside. Just follow their interests and the capabilities of their hands. Don't give their brain anything that their hands can't handle. ”

Guiding your child in the kitchen can help them become more engaged, but too much direct involvement actually has a negative effect. It’s more effective to help out and have fun than it is to micro-manage or try to force an academic lesson while you’re making muffins. Keeping things lighthearted and using the time to bond is the best way to help your child reap the sweet rewards of cooking.

Want to learn more about “You & Your Lil’ Sous Chef?”  Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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