How to capture learning moments when cooking with your child

Cooking with our children can be a great opportunity to teach them valuable skills that will last, but have you ever felt overwhelmed with where to start and how to prevent a big mess or avoid food wastage? With a busy household, especially with holidays or festivals, teaching your children while cooking together doesn’t have to feel like an old-fashioned home economics class. 

My name is Shehla, and I’m a Montessori educator, mum of three and founder of Edulinxs Club for online preschool learning programs and resources. In this blog, I aim to inspire you with a few cooking activities that naturally integrate valuable lessons for young children that you can try today and feel assured that your child is learning lots along the way. 

Science in the Oven

Baking involves precise measurements and chemical reactions, making it a mini-science experiment. For very young children, including them to add the ingredients is one of the simplest and most exciting forms of participation. Encourage them to pour pre-measured liquids into a mix and enjoy the mixing process, which they will love. The pouring and mixing activity are key to strengthening those hand muscles for future literacy skills. Don’t worry about spills. Keep a small cloth handy that they can use to wipe away. It’s all part of the learning when they see liquid absorption, so no activity is irrelevant to their development. 

For older children, measuring is a crucial component of science and maths, so be sure to ask them to measure 2 cups of rice or add a third of 150 grams of flour (for example) to get their mathematical minds ticking. These are opportunities to see measurements and calculations in action. Don’t be alarmed if your child gets confused when measuring because knowing how these measurements practically work out will spark those learning moments and refine their skills and understanding. If a recipe calls for dissolving an ingredient in water, encourage your child with this task so they recognise what a dissolved solution looks like. It becomes a valuable practical experience for those upcoming assessed science experiments they’ll have to do in the future! Here’s the thing to remember. The best of us can make mistakes and mismeasure ingredients at any time, but this is where the real learning and creativity begins as we can demonstrate problem-solving.

Another exciting activity is to talk about how yeast makes dough rise or why baking soda reacts with vinegar. When you explore the transformation of ingredients with your child, you’ve included a complete holistic learning experience while enjoying bonding together.

Math at the Table

Involve children in meal planning and grocery shopping. This simple activity incorporates math skills like counting, budgeting, and categorising. The best part is that your child will feel empowered and included in important household decisions. A quick tip for shopping together, especially during busy seasons, is to prep beforehand. Try the less busy times in the day, like the morning, and have a good meal before shopping, which saves on impulse buying. Discuss the recipe you intend to make together to help your child stay focussed on what you’re heading out to buy. 

When cooking with older children, share your budget for a recipe to make shopping easier. Have them calculate the price of the ingredients and get them to check if they have stayed within budget and what to do if not, like opting for cheaper alternatives. Budgeting is an extremely important skill to learn, especially with the cost of living and when they become independent adults navigating their budgets. For young children, have a visual shopping list and get them to match those pictures to the objects in the shop and enjoy placing them in the basket. 

When your child is involved in shopping, they feel valued and included. Shopping with young children is not easy, and these activities can help to occupy them and encourage indirect learning. I used to guide my children before going out with our expectations of shopping together, and it enabled us to keep calm in the busy shops.

Meal planning together boosts self-esteem as your child is likely to eat what they have planned with you. You can offer vegetable choices that must be added to the meal, so, for example, broccoli is also part of the meal, even if your child has chosen chicken nuggets. 

Storytelling in the Kitchen

Cooking offers a storytelling platform; you could use recipe names or ingredients to spark your child’s imagination. Create narratives around a dish’s origin or certain foods’ cultural significance. For example, some dishes may be something you invented by accident or a recipe that a great-grandparent created. But further to this, which we always find fascinating, is where our food comes from. The opportunities to explore are endless here, so start with a basic map and some fruits or vegetables from another country and point out where and how they were grown on the map. The journey of food will promote language development, creativity, and cultural awareness without direct teaching.

Cultural Cuisine Exploration

Exploring dishes from various cultures introduces diversity and appreciation for different traditions. A way to explore other cultures through food is by incorporating cooking sessions or family meals centred around diverse cuisines. For instance, suppose you plan a “Cultural Cuisine Night” once a month. Each month, select a different country or culture and prepare a traditional meal together as a family. While cooking, casually discuss the dish’s origin, its significance in the culture, and the unique ingredients or cooking methods involved. You can share interesting titbits about the country’s customs, festivals, or stories about the meal. This hands-on approach allows children to absorb cultural knowledge organically while enjoying a fun and interactive cooking experience. Over time, they develop a natural curiosity and appreciation for diverse traditions without feeling like they’re being formally taught.

Gardening and Farm-to-Table Learning

Planting and nurturing a kitchen garden introduces children to the life cycle of plants and the importance of fresh produce. Tending to plants teaches responsibility, patience, and environmental awareness. Harvesting herbs or vegetables for cooking completes the learning cycle. However, if you don’t have green fingers (honestly, I don’t!), start with something simple like garden mint. Planting this sturdy herb in a pot, unless you’re okay with it spreading, is a great start and unlocks a lot of learning for your child as they observe the plant’s life cycle from beginning to end. Your child will love the sensory learning experience of the mint fragrance when crushed for a sauce or added to an herbal tea.  

Sensory Exploration in Cooking

Sensory exploration of food is a fantastic and fun learning experience and a handy life skill, as distinguishing between parsley and coriander, for example, based on their fragrance, determines the dish’s flavour. Engage your child’s senses during cooking to gain practical experience and help them to differentiate. A favourite activity my students loved was having small bowls of spices and ingredients to smell and distinguish. Omit any spice your child may be allergic to, and you can create an arrangement of cocoa powder, cloves, cinnamon, coffee, cardamom, saffron, star anise and so on for your child to explore. Herbs and spices can link to country of origin, stories, and cultural cuisines to try. Let them touch, smell, and taste these ingredients, as discovering textures, aromas, and flavours stimulates sensory development and vocabulary expansion without formal instruction.

Teamwork and communication

Cooking as a family encourages teamwork and communication and is an excellent opportunity to bond. Everyone helping to prepare a meal in a busy household makes it more meaningful and appreciated, but I know it can’t be done daily. The best way to have family cooking days is to have a day in the week when you know you’ll be together and to plan the ingredients and time needed. The process can be very rewarding and engaging, and it is essential to remember that it’s all about the process and hands-on experiences that will last with your child. Assigning tasks to each member fosters responsibility, cooperation, problem-solving and boosts self-esteem. When cooking, remember to include natural discussions about roles, timing, and coordination, which build essential social skills.

Cooking with children is a treasure trove of learning opportunities. By immersing them in cooking experiences and allowing exploration, discovery, and creativity, you can subtly teach without formal instruction. When we add formal learning, we risk putting your children off from essential life skills, so having fun is important. You could even play some music while cooking, relaxing the atmosphere. Be ready to embrace a little mess and encourage curiosity. Mistakes while cooking happens to all of us, but this is where we refine our understanding and technique and develop creativity that your child will value in their life. To avoid wastage, cook small amounts or half the recipe if it’s new, and keep a timer for the cooking process. Celebrate anything you make with pictures or a video as you savour these learning moments and connections in the kitchen. 

Encouraging your child to develop culinary skills and teaching them about measurement doesn’t require you to be an expert chef. The most important thing is that you can learn and experiment together, making the experience enjoyable, engaging, educational and fostering a lifelong love of learning with confidence.

Happy cooking!

By Shehla,  Montessori educator, mum of three and founder of Edulinxs Club and part of Predictable Parenting Partnership