Sunday, April 21, 2013

Special Helpers in the Kitchen - Guest Post

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I invited author and mother of four (including a 10 year old boy with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and an 8 year old daughter born with Down's syndrome) to share her experience cooking with special needs kids. Deborah teaches cooking classes in her home to mothers and children with mild special needs. Check out Deborah's amazing, powerful, and insightful new memoir A Brief Moment in Timepublished by ASD Publushing Co, New York, available where ebooks are sold.

Cooking can be hectic, messy and stressful. A brief loss of focus or minor slip up can lead to overly-spiced and over-cooked food, or blood and burns. Because adding children to that mix is quite often a ‘no no’ for many mothers, children are missing out on grasping the tools of a fundamental life skill.  

Photo from Nicole Mays
Cooking time with mum gives children an opportunity to learn about the different food groups and the importance of health, safety, and hygiene during preparation.  Furthermore, whilst we live in an environment where the consumption of processed food is more appealing than spending time preparing fresh food from scratch, we have a responsibility to teach our children how to make the correct culinary choices.

As a mother of four children, two of whom have special needs, finding the patience as well as the time to teach my children is no easy task.  Yet making the effort has taught me that cooking with children who have special needs is just as effective as a therapy session.  

How is this so?  I am certainly not a professional in the medical field with little expertise in the different techniques used when working with children with disabilities.  However, what I do have is a very specific skill set when preparing food.  This skill set is managed by rules and regulations that ensure safe food management and consumption.  Children with communication, coordination and attention difficulties thrive on rules and boundaries because they help guide them on how to behave.  By learning to cook using this skill set, they become more confident and focused by being able to reap the almost immediate benefits from their efforts by enjoying the food they have prepared.

Photo from Nicole Mays
It still amazes me that my 10 year old son, who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder and thereby has trouble focusing on a given task and trouble with hand eye coordination is able to egg, bread and fry chicken, under my watchful eye of course, with absolute precision. 

Below are my top 5 tips for cooking with all children:

1.  Allocate a 30 minute time slot for cooking:
For the first few sessions outlining a start and finish time will help the concept feel more manageable to you.  Also your child, who may have difficulty starting a new activity due to concentration issues, will be more inclined to participate knowing that this activity has a start and end time.

2.  Before the session begins have all utensils and ingredients ready:

When cooking with children under age 6 it is will be helpful to have all seasoning/dry foods measured out and vegetables washed and ready to prepare before you begin.  You will then be able to focus on the food preparation alone. 
For older children, utensil and ingredient preparation can be introduced at the outset as it is an important part of the process for them to understand and learn how to manage.

3.  Devise a short list of fundamental rules that will be outlined at the beginning of every session:

We all have different pointers that will be important when cooking with our children, and the rules will also differ for older children.  Whilst devising your list consider the following as options for you:

For younger children:
- You must listen to mummy at all times whilst we cook.
- Before cooking we tie our hair up (for girls).
- We all wash our hands with soap.
- At the end of every cooking session, we will help mummy clear up.

To add for older children:
- Follow each instruction carefully when using different utensils.
- Clear up as we work.

4.  Use visual recipes where possible:

Following a recipe step by step using visual examples, helps all children understand what they need to do more clearly.  Those with special needs are also able practice following a process through from start to finish, helping them learn how each step contributes to the end result

5. Talk through the recipe before you begin cooking and discuss new skills that will be learnt.

For example if the recipe calls for whisking or mixing with a wooden spoon, show your child the utensil before you begin.  Let them hold it and familiarize themselves before you begin.  This way, when you introduce it to the cooking process it won’t distract their attention.

Below is a delicious recipe that is suitable for both parents and children alike.   Determine based on your child’s age which part of the preparation they can be involved in and which part requires a grown up helper:

Yummy French toast with a twist

Photo from Mia3Mom Rachel
  • 2 slices of wholemeal bread
  • Butter
  • A small handful of grated cheese
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup of milk
  • 1 spoon of olive oil
  • Optional: Thin slices of tomato, mozzarella cheese

  1. Crack egg into a glass and pour into a mixing bowl.
  2. Add milk and whisk with a fork.
  3. Spread butter on both slices of bread.
  4. Sprinkle cheese on one slice and add other optional ingredients if preferred.
  5. Put the other slice on top and press down.
  6. Dip the sandwich over and over again in the egg mixture.
  7. Ask a grown up for help with the next part. Turn on the gas and heat up the oil in a frying pan.
  8. Add the sandwich into the pan. Remember:  Don’t drop into the pan; lay the sandwich slowly and carefully so that the oil doesn't splash!
  9. Fry for 3 minutes on a medium heat and then ask your grown up helper to help you turn the sandwich over and fry for another 3 minutes until the egg is cooked.
  10. Remove from the heat, serve immediately and enjoy! 

Deborah French blogs regularly on her website on navigating the school system, how to inspire teachers and therapists to help your child, and tips on daily life both for parenting and finding yourself. 


  1. Great post! I know of a family where an autistic son did all of the Shabbat shopping, cooking and cleanup, including the calculations of the amounts to buy, from the time he was a teen.

    1. That's wonderful and the most significant part is the sense of achievement and self worth the young man must have felt whilst working through each step to complete the meal.
      Thank you for your feedback

  2. This post has been included in me-ander: Kosher Cooking Carnival, Sivan 5773.  Thanks for your participation. Please visit, comment and share, thanks.



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