The World’s Greatest Learning Activity: Food Preparation and Cooking at Home

It’s summer.  As I write this, the world has made it through some of the most chaotic months in memory where, over and over, the unthinkable has happened at the world has shut itself down.


Now that most people have had a moment to take a breath and recover from the last three months, we have realized that even with some return to normalcy, our kids might still be learning from home more next fall, and meanwhile, there are still more than two months of being at home on top of the two month we have had. Or more, depending on where you are.


Many people are looking for ideas online, but seriously, I’m an adult and seeing one more virtual anything makes me what to turn off my computer and go outside.  And it must be worse for kids, especially the little ones!  At any rate, I think too much of any kind of screen is not good for anyone.


But, you say, I am not a teacher.  And also I have to work.


I hear you.  But also, let me reassure you that the most simple solution is right in front of you.  If you are stress eating, it might literally be in front of you.


The best learning solution is right in your kitchen:  teach the kids to cook.


I know this may sound like just sneaky way to get chores done, but the thing is, the chores have to be done anyway.  You and your family gotta eat. 


And if you eat out/do take out too much, if you’re not hit in your wallet (which you are), you’re going to be hit in your waistline.  And if you teach your kids to prefer take out/restaurant food, or if they think cooking is too complicated, you’re setting them up to have health problems and financial problems their entire lives.


Still not convinced?  Check out these five ways that cooking at home teaches important academic skills.


1.     Reading


When we think of reading, especially with younger kids, many of us think of reading stories.  Many kids take to this as a fun activity.  Many do not.  Some of these kids, especially if reading doesn’t come that easy to them, don’t understand the concept of reading for fun, especially now that video is so readily available.  Even kids who DO take to reading are being harmed if the “narrative” (story) is the only kind of reading they do. 


Education policy is on top of this concept, which is why the U.S. Common Core standards, which is the curriculum framework used in 41states, the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.), four U.S. territories, and the DoDEA (schools on U.S. military bases worldwide) require students to read nonfiction 50% of the time.


Now, yes,  you can watch a video to follow a recipe, but I would guess that most people use some sort of written document in conjunction with the recipe to know specific item names, amounts, etc.


This type of informational reading is accessible to even the earliest readers, and in fact, narrative reading should be paired with nonfiction. 


Following a recipe teaches children to read for details, to be precise, and also the importance of reading something more than once, which you are almost bound to do when following a recipe.

Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook

If you only have one cookbook, Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook is an excellent choice for an American home. Almost anything that you can think of that you want to make is included in this book.

Make sure you get the most recent edition because this cookbook is updated frequently.

Better Homes & Gardens is also good because they include a lot of cooking and food preparation tips and techniques. Because people can now go to the Internet for recipes, BHG has gone more and more to being about cooking and running a kitchen at home.

I very often give a copy for weddings.

I will include more about cookbooks, including children’s cookbooks, in upcoming posts, but BHG is a good place to start.

Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book

 2.     Math


I’m sure you can guess some of the ways that cooking helps with math.  First of all, there is the measuring.  Working with cups, tablespoons and teaspoons helps children internalize exactly what they mean and why they are important. 


The next way that cooking helps kids is with that most evil of functions, FRACTIONS.  Because of course you have to work with measuring units in fractions.  Many times I will use a half cup measure multiple times in order to avoid getting my whole cup dirty…teaching kids these “hacks” helps them understand the concepts behind them.


Working with food and portion sizes also helps them understand how fractions represent a part of a whole…especially the idea that ¼, for example, is less than ½. That idea is confusing to kids because, obviously a 4 should be more than 2, right?  So learning that they can cut the pizza in 4ths or 8ths helps them understand…they still have one pizza, but do they want to eat ¼ or 2/8?


Finally, believe it or not, cooking helps kids with the dreaded word problems.  To succeed with word problems, the learner needs to able to read carefully and apply all of the information that is given.  In math class, if you don’t apply the information correctly in a word problem, you get the answer wrong.  In real life, if you don’t calculate how much paint you’re going to need, you either spend too much or need to run to the store in the middle of the job.  Or if you’re an engineer, your building falls down.  Or if you’re cooking dinner, the food is too watery or two spicy…or in the case of baking, doesn’t rise and is inedible! 


So now we have covered the two subjects that take up most of the day in elementary school.  But kids can learn a lot more than just reading and math (and reading is math is not a “just”) from cooking.



3.     Economics


Part of cooking food is shopping for food, and kids should be brought along on shopping trips as often as possible.  If you have more than one kid, and it’s too difficult to shop with the whole group, try bringing along one at a time. 


If possible, try not to do this…at least to start…when you are in a rush.  When you are with kids, you have to go to kid speed. Of course, there are times that you do need to bring the kids and also need to rush…so just explain that in advance.


With a children of age six or so, I would start by having them figure out which is cheapest by looking at things that are the same size, such as cans of corn.  Right away, they will probably realize that the store brand is usually the cheapest. Kids can pick out logos even if they can’t read yet…in fact, it is a very basic form of “reading” and a good place to start.

Learning that marks on paper represents real things is the most basic concept in reading. 

The next step is teaching them to look at unit prices, because of course one of the ways that the grocery industry sets out to confuse us is by having everything in different sizes, or packaging things to look bigger than they are…or leaving extra space in the box.  You know the drill.  Sometimes, even with the unit price on the shelf, I still have to whip out my phone to figure out the best deal: teach your kids to do that. 

When they are ready, you can also start teaching them how much you pay for individualized packaging, which most of the time, you don’t need. That’s what plastic bags and small plastic containers are for.

Of course, there are times when we don’t buy the cheapest thing for one reason or another, but you want to make sure your kids understand all the ways that they store and the packaging is set up to make us spend money that we don’t need to spend that also doesn’t improve our experience of eating the food. 

Which brings us to the more advanced lessons about packaging and the way that colors, design, and advertising are designed to make us spend more than we need to. 

Other Considerations and Learning Experiences

What’s Worth Making from Scratch and What is Worth Ready Made?

 One of the biggest rip offs, to me, are packaged, “easy mix” meals because so often making the same recipe from scratch, with whole foods, tastes so much better, is healthier, and costs so much less.  One way to start teaching this lesson is to compare say, the costs box of Minute Rice with packaged “side dishes” and with the big bags of rice on the bottom shelf.  How many times do you need to eat rice before a rice cooker pays for itself with the savings on the Minute Rice?  That’s a question.

And also, how much better does the rice taste? 

Rice Comparison Example

Compare the cost and taste of Minute Rice versus the two regular bands below (Japanese, medium grained rice, is stickier than long grained). You can make regular rice on the stovetop pretty easily, actually, but a good rice cooker makes it even easier and also keeps the rice warm for long periods of time. Pictured is a good Japanese brand in a United States-made-for-export model, which means it runs on American electrical current and has English labels.

Ready made rice pilaf is a big waste of money to me because pilaf is easy to make with regular rice and chicken stock or chicken bouillon.

Pizza Example

Perhaps some things are not worth making from scratch.  One of the most obvious examples is bread: people may make it for fun, but most people find the quality and cost of ready made bread a better choice.

I don’t bother making pizza from scratch, and I usually buy a frozen pizza every week or two.  There isn’t much of a cost savings or taste improvement to me, and I usually throw that pizza in the oven when it is that or last minute take out, when the frozen pizza is the better option.   But you know, for some people, homemade pizza is a THING, and they may wince at my Freschetta. Other people really love take out pizza, which I will eat but don’t find worth the cost, especially for a small family like mine.

But you may eat some things ready made that I wouldn’t touch. Personal preference…the point is, we don’t eat that all the time. We eat a frozen pizza 2-3 times a month.

You want kids to learn about balance of cost and nutrition.

You know, there isn’t any food that is that terrible if you eat it once in a while, it’s having “treats” too often that’s the problem. 


I’m not much of a coupon shopper because I prefer to minimize my reliance on processed, branded food that offer coupons.  For the branded products I do use, I do generally have a specific reason for using them, and I don’t like to switch around. 

I’ll admit I could do a bit better with at least checking online before I go, but I do prefer to work more with store brands and everyday best value, taste, and nutrition.  If you do use coupons, naturally kids can help with that too, and you can teach them to use them effectively.  They can be a rip off either in terms of products that are overpriced to begin with or items that don’t offer much nutrition.


Occasionally I will enjoy an extreme couponing show on TV, and I have also noticed that very often products with a lot of waste packaging turn up as well, which is another reason I avoid them.  I’d rather buy one huge container of liquid soap that I distill into smaller, reusable bottles at home than buy a bunch of little bottles, even if I do get them for nothing with multiple coupon discounts.


There’s something to be said for being environmentally friendly, too.


I also consider the effect on my time and the environment of multiple trips to multiple stores, which is another reason I prefer to stick to the store that offers me the most reliable, healthy food at the best total price.


The point of all of this is not really to get any one answer: the answer depends on preference and values.  It’s having the discussion about preferences and values that is important.  If your kids know to do that, they will be able to make good economic…and health…decisions throughout their lives, as circumstances and living conditions change.  Eventually, it’s going to be about more than just your kids as they share living spaces with different people, including the families of their own that they eventually form.


The saddest thing to me is when you see people who are in debt because they are spending too much feeding themselves because they never learned good habits at home. They often have health problems too.


4.     Science

Cooking includes physics, chemistry, and biology.  I’m sure I’m going to miss a lot of things, but you’ll get the idea.


First, biology.  The food (for the most part) comes from natural sources.  This is easy to explain to your children when you walk around the grocery store.  The unprocessed plants (fruits and vegetables) are in their section, and the more processed plants, grains, cereals, condiments, baking/spices, and bakery, have their aisles/sections.  The animals have their sections in meat, poultry, and fish, and then you can break it down from there.  The processed animal products, dairy, have their section. 


That leaves you with the rest of the store to try to explain.  Have fun with that.  Now you’re dealing with chemistry, mostly.


In truth, I read years ago that the key to healthy eating is to minimize the shopping you do in the aisles as much as possible.  Most of the healthy/whole food is found on the edges of the store because it requires cooling.  I still question myself if I have to go down too many aisles or if I feel I’m making too many stops on the aisles I do frequent.  It helps me keep the junk food minimized.


When you get back home to the kitchen, you are dealing with chemistry and physics. 


Whatever you do to food to make it tastier and more edible are chemical processes.  It’s good for kids to understand not just what you do, but why you do it.  For example, which substances tenderize meat, what thickens, what forms a nice crust when fried, what causes the cake to rise…the kids should develop and idea of what does what. 


Of course, it’s important to know these things so the recipes don’t out and out fail, but I find them good to know so I can fake my way through recipes without having the exact ingredients on hand.  Some authors will tell you that you can substitute, but some won’t.  There are some things that there is little reason for an everyday cook to buy, such as self rising flour, but you need to know that you don’t need that if you have your own leavening that you can throw in.


It’s good to model that behavior with kids too: substituting here and there when you are missing something or don’t want to buy a whole package of something that you might have trouble using up.


Physics also comes into play in the kitchen.  Cutting and slicing, using appliances…not burning yourself on a hot stove or oven.  These things are all physics.  I remember being taught at a very early age to cut up the potatoes into  small pieces both to make them cook faster and also make them easier to mash. 


There are whole books of “kitchen experiments” you can do with kids to teach scientific principles at home, but so help me, I am not messing up my kitchen unless we are getting something to eat out of it. I don’t see the point of doing “kitchen experiments” when you could be making a meal and cover the same concepts.


Oh, which brings us to health. Which is biology…and chemistry, and physics. So here we are full circle.  When you are teaching the kids to clean, you are teaching them why we do it (so we don’t get sick or bring in pests).  They need to know what is safe to use and where…such as nontoxic cleaners…or when you need to make sure things are a sanitized.  Why you need to use hot water for dishes is important. 


They need to know how to handle knives and sharp objects carefully. In future posts, I’ll cover the use of sharp knives with kids, but suffice to say that they need to learn to do it. Cutting is a basic part of cooking. Unless you’re preparing food for very large groups, usually it’s easier to cut small quantities of things by hand than having to clean a mandolin or food processor. I don’t even own a mandolin, and usually when kids first go out on their own, they don’t have room or money for the large equipment…or really the need, if they’re cooking for one or two.


And finally, of course, they need to know how to put together a balanced meal…what we need to eat each day and how often.  How things that taste good, such as fat and sugar, need to be eaten in moderation. 


And I really have a thing about my food tasting like the food that it is.  I flavor my food, but I like it low key.  So talk with your kids about your family’s point of view on that, too.

Salt Fat Acid Heat

Salt Fat Acid Heat is definitely for adults or teenagers, but it’s an excellent explanation of the chemical and physical changes food goes through while it’s being cooked.


5.     Geography

Click image for source.

Click image for source.


You may have to push the geography a little bit and look things up, especially with older kids, but for younger kids, this is easy.  Talk to them about the foods we eat and where they come from…you can start with things like, “from the ground, from the sea, from the forest” etc.


Then there are the dishes we eat.  Pizza originally came from Italy, fried rice came from China, etc.  Then you are opening up to understanding all of the different types of food and also why some people eat more of one thing than another.


I remember just freezing in the grocery store in Tokyo the first time I saw their fish section because it consists of cooler tables with whole fish, many different kinds, bedded in ice…but it was all so fresh that I didn’t smell anything, which is why it caught me off guard.


In Jordan, many well-to-do people get jugs of olive oil and big jars of olives from their farms in the country.  Very often I could purchase those things from friends, who would drive around with their farm products in their cars and just mention that they had them at whatever social gatherings they happened to attend.  I still miss the pomegranates, which your local friends could get for you at a rate of about $7 for a case (as opposed to $3 for one pomegranate where I live in the U.S. now). 


So trying different things and talking about where they came from, and why certain ingredients are used a lot, is a really concrete way for kids to learn about different countries.  It’s not the whole thing, but it’s a good introduction.


Also, don’t forget to take your kids to see how food is grown locally.  If you have farms or other places, try to go there.  Point out fishermen to the kids if you are by the sea, and perhaps take them to a fish market.  Take them to farmer’s markets in the summer, and let them make small purchases. 

 You Tell Us

Now that I’ve written all of this down, I am hungry so I am going to make dinner.  Check back to The Lois Level for more guides to cooking with your kids, and leave your ideas in the comments below.


I know there is a lot more that I have not thought about or was able to get to here, so please join in!