Baking a cake can unlock the secrets of the universe. Decorating a pizza can take you on a journey around the world. The complete curriculum can be licked out of the mixing bowl. All you need is a bit of imagination and patience, and cooking with the kids can become a lesson in… just about anything. Follow the recipes below, and find out how kids can use their loaf while baking one.
A Soupçon Of Language
Just think about the vocabulary of cooking for a minute. It’s huge. The list of potential ingredients runs into the thousands, if not tens of thousands. The number of different dishes you can create from them is even greater. Herbs and spices alone stretch from asafoetida to za’atar. Throw in the names of all the different tools and techniques and you have a rich source of words (not to be confused with a ‘rich sauce of words’, which is also known as alphabetti spaghetti). This naturally lends itself to joke telling (as I just did), a fun way to sharpen language skills. Or you can use the names of ingredients and dishes to learn about different cultures and languages (see geography section below). Or you can simply make words out of the spice jars, as we like to do in our household.
A Measure Of Maths And Science
The kitchen isn’t so different from a laboratory. Both places involve the mixing of ingredients, careful health and safety, and the application of mathematical skills. Here are just some of the topics you might discuss while cooking together.
Understanding Quantities: Measuring stuff is a really important skill to learn, and the kitchen is the best place to do it. Teach the kids about volumes while measuring water or milk. A ruler or tape measure can be used to check the size of a pie dish. And, of course, you’ll be doing lots of weighing on the kitchen scales. A good trick here is to show the kids how 100ml of water weighs precisely 100g, and a litre equals a kilogram -- a trick many adults never learned. With older children, you could introduce the concept of unit conversion, and show them how to convert ounces into grams, or pints into litres.
Fractions: Preparing ingredients often involves ‘quartering’, ‘halving’ or ‘cutting into eight segments’. It’s a good, practical way to discuss fractions.
Discuss The Ingredients: Take any processed food from the cupboard and you’re likely to find a long list of ingredients printed on the side. What is ‘niacin’? What’s the point of ‘maltodextrin’? Why is ‘potato starch’ the main ingredient in my gravy’? You probably don’t have the answers in your head, but it’s easy enough to google them. This is a really simple and eye-opening way to talk about food science with the kids, and learn something for yourself at the same time.
Learn About Food Groups: The body needs a daily dose of carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, fibre and minerals for good health. Cooking together is an excellent way of exploring these food groups. Talk about this while adding ingredients, and how a balanced meal should have a little of everything (e.g. pasta for carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins from the tomato sauce, and protein from the quorn or meat). You can also show the kids how these constituents are listed on the packaging, and why it’s best to avoid overindulging in sugars, fats and salt.
Thermodynamics: Have you ever thought about why you can’t unbake a cake? It’s all to do with the second law of thermodynamics. In simple terms, things tend to get messier with time. When you bake a cake, you start out with your ingredients in good order. A pile of flour, a whole egg, a knob of butter. Mix them together and you get a gooey mess. Once it’s mixed in, you’ll never, ever see that intact yolk ever again, nor the knob of butter. Their molecules are all still in there, but they aren’t going to regroup. This much is common sense, but the underlying reason for this helps to explain how the entire universe works. To make something as regular as an egg yolk, you have to gather together molecules in a tightly defined way. To form a messy cake batter, by contrast, you can scramble things however you like. There are an infinite number of ways to make a mess, but a much, much smaller number of ways to make an orderly, tidy yolk. By random stirring, you’re vastly more likely to move the molecules into another mess configuration, rather than accidentally bat them all back into the yolk pattern. It’s called entropy -- the tendency of the universe to move from a state of order to a state of less order. It also accounts for why your child’s bedroom is always in a mess. There are only one or two ways for it to be tidy, but an infinite number of ways it might be in chaos. Chaos is more likely.
A Rich Dollop Of Geography
Can you name a dish from every country of Europe? Probably not. The world of food is so vast and varied that even top chefs are always learning. Start them young by talking about the international origins of food. You can begin with their favourites -- pasta and pizza came from Italy; tacos from Mexico; curries from different parts of India and South East Asia, etc. Then move on to more unfamiliar terrain. Try buying unusual vegetables from local shops, or tackling recipes that you’ve not tried before. For those in the UK, the CBeebies show My World Kitchen is an endless source of inspiration for simple, child-friendly recipes from around the globe. It helps to have a map of the world on the kitchen wall. You could even add stickers onto countries you’ve talked about, or used ingredients from.
A Dash Of Fine Motor Skills
For younger children, helping in the kitchen is a fun way to practice fine motor skills and coordination. Get them measuring out liquids, rolling dough, cracking eggs (and fishing out any rogue shell), mixing butter and flour by hand, and any of the other tasks that require good hand-eye coordination.
Two Cups Of Environmental Awareness
We should all be thinking about where our food comes from, and talking about it with the kids will highlight any gaps in your own knowledge, as well as improving theirs. Topics you might discuss include:
What do we mean by ‘organic’ food?
How are our fruit and vegetables farmed?
What makes eggs ‘free range’, or not?
How are dairy animals kept, and how do the children feel about that?
What countries have our ingredients come from (and ‘food miles’)?
A Good Helping Of Health and Safety
Needless to say, the kitchen can be a dangerous place for small hands. Sharp knives, hot surfaces and spinning gadgets should all be handled carefully, and only introduced when a child is ready. That said, the kitchen is also an excellent place to help children overcome their fears. You can introduce them to cutting surfaces with butter knives and scissors, then progress to sharper tools. Hobs, grills and ovens should be left for older (and carefully supervised) children, but youngsters could help with the microwave, for example, or setting a rice cooker. Many smaller children are terrified of the loud noises from blenders and juicers. Getting them to press the button, and discussing what’s happening, is one way of overcoming this fear.
A Heaped Tablespoon Of Family Bonding
Finally, it’s not only fun and educational to cook or bake together, it’s a great way for families to bond over a useful activity. You’ll also end up with something delicious to eat. Remember to take photos of the kids holding the finished article, and keep a food diary of everything they’ve learned, enjoyed, tasted and the questions they have asked.
Browse our complete food and cookery section for more inspiration.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.