Almost as enjoyable as eating a satisfying meal is preparing one. It’s not only fun, it can also be an educational activity. What’s more, involving individuals in choosing and preparing the very food they eat is important for their physical health and emotional well-being.
Cooking and preparing food is a life skill, an essential part of independent living. In addition to cooking, planning, preparation, hygiene, and clean-up activities are important parts of life. Activities before, during, and after the actual cooking offers practice in the following life skills:
- Allowing individuals to select what they want to eat will become an important part of their lives. However, they will need guidance. Nutrition is an extremely important issue: numerous studies and surveys show that people with disabilities are much more likely to be obese and their nondisabled counterparts. As in special education, it is critical to consider each consumer’s individual abilities. For example, a consumer with significant cognitive disabilities may need to select among two or three choices; picture prompts can be very effective and helpful. Individuals with higher-functioning cognitive skills can apply lessons on nutrition, such as planning a balanced meal, using Choose My Plate, formerly known as the Food Pyramid. The next step will be to create grocery lists together.
- Time spent at the grocery store can be a satisfying scavenger hunt, with an element of logic thrown in (e.g., “In which department do we find the butter?”). Previous conversations on nutrition can be reinforced by reading product labels. Of course, in the end (literally and figuratively), any shopping experience affords practice with the mathematics of money.
- Food Preparation. From reviewing recipes to cutting vegetables to actual cooking (e.g., baking, frying, and boiling), individuals learn the ABCs of preparing a meal.
- Math and Measurement. Mathematical concepts are taught and absorbed in real-life contexts. In addition to handling money at the store, individuals will learn about volume measurement (as well as what tools are best, for example, measuring spoon or measuring cup), and time.
- Food Handling, Safety, and Hygiene. Instruction in food preparation should include other important skills: safety (for example, how to handle knives and hot objects) and hygiene, both personal (e.g., proper hand washing) and food-handling protocols (e.g., using separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat to avoiding bacterial cross-contamination and washing pots and utensils properly).
- Working Together. Individuals learn much and derive considerable satisfaction from working together and benefiting from tangible team accomplishments.
The following are guidelines to keep in mind when teaching individuals with disabilities cooking and food preparation:
- Give the individuals as much independence as they can handle. Visual or verbal prompts may be necessary; the type and level of the prompt will depend on each person’s abilities and challenges.
- Pay attention to sequencing. Giving directions that can be followed easily is the most challenging aspect of teaching people with special needs. “Lessons” must accommodate the cognitive and ability of the individual, his/her interests, and talents. In most cases, it is best to present steps one at a time.
- Make it multisensory—sight, touch, smell and, of course, taste. Through questioning and the sense of taste, the consumer will determine, for example, how much seasoning to use or whether the mix of ingredients is a good one. The individual gains independence not only learning a valuable skill, but also by being involved in making decisions.
- Finally, show that making mistakes is OK. We all make mistakes, and that’s a good practical life lesson, too, especially for younger individuals. Furthermore, the unintended result can be a tasty surprise!
Cooking and associated skills are taught and used in a real-life context, which makes them much easier to learn and retain. In addition, much of what people learn in cooking they can apply to other situations. The individuals acquire a great deal of personal satisfaction through independence.