Snacks for the Mind

Whether you think of cooking as a pleasure or a chore, you can help your child experience fun and learning in the kitchen. A willingness to experiment is the key – enter the kitchen with the mind-set that there’s no such thing as a failure, whether the end result is edible or not. Your kids will learn the value of planning ahead, sharpen their math and science skills, pick up lessons in nutrition and perhaps even enhance their artistic abilities.

After all the food is ready...
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12 creative ways to make dinnertime a fun time
And experimental cooking may make kids more open to experimental tasting at dinner time: if you’re game to try anything a child prepares (including fried peanut-butter sandwiches), they’ll be more willing to sample new foods you suggest at home and in restaurants. Encouraging your child’s more inventive creations also builds self-esteem.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your kids are too young to learn anything in a kitchen. Even preschoolers can be involved in food preparation. When they say, "Let me do it!" let them. By the time they’re school age, most kids can handle many kitchen activities, from menu planning to measuring and mixing – even actual cooking. Include cleanup chores as part of the agenda and lend a hand if your child is still young or easily overwhelmed.


  • Getting Started
  • Play It Safe
  • Over the Counter Creativity
  • Culinary Learning
  • Beyond the Kitchen

    Getting Started

    When choosing a cookbook for your child, make sure the recipes are totally clear. For example, if a recipe asks you to "sift," is that term explained? Unless you’re a sophisticated cook yourself, it helps to have at least one comprehensive (adult) cookbook on hand that doesn’t take anything for granted.

    Well before an actual cooking session, choose one or more recipes with your child, list the ingredients you’ll need to buy and shop for them together. If possible, add a little extra to your food budget for experimenting. I like to think of cooking as an art or craft worth the expense, like finger painting or photography.

    Make certain you have all the kitchen equipment you’ll need, including the right knives, mixing implements, bowls and pans. A nice touch for a child is a heat-resistant, clear glass pot or pan that allows you to see the food as it cooks.
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    Play It Safe

  • Turn all pot handles inward, away from the edge of the stove.
  • Teach your child how to use knives safely and slowly.
  • Emphasize that kitchen tools should be treated with as much care as power tools. Blenders, waste disposals, stoves, ovens and other such tools can cause serious harm to little hands.
  • Point out that pots, pans and microwaved food stay hot after they leave the stove.
  • Make sure kids never touch burners on an electric stove – they stay hot even after they’ve been turned off.
  • Have your child wear a large apron for protection, and teach him or her how to use thick oven mitts and pot holders.
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    Over-the-Counter Creativity

  • Encourage creativity in the forms food can take. Pancakes can be made in any animal shape by pouring the body first, then adding legs and a head. Use cookie cutters to cut out sandwiches. Add cucumber slices to the bottom of a hot dog bun, and you have a car. Create a monster by using small, round dinner rolls for sandwiches and adding grapes on pretzel sticks for eyes.
  • Combine foods in unaccustomed ways or use unexpected colors. When my son was young, he wondered why food never seems to be blue. So we made cupcakes using blue food coloring, and they tasted fine.
  • Make it healthier. Show your child how to substitute healthier ingredients for the ones called for (such as using low-fat milk instead of whole milk), or to change some aspect of a recipe (such as reducing the amount of sugar).
  • Make up recipes from scratch and then name them appropriately or amusingly. Or have your child invent a name and then prepare something that tastes the way the name sounds. (Yellow Boomerangs? Slippery Slides?) Or adapt literary allusions to fit foods. (A muffin of one’s own? The tabouli not taken? My kingdom for a quesadilla?)
  • Add a new twist to an old favorite. List all the basic dishes your family commonly eats. Then brainstorm ways to change them by altering their form or by combining their ingredients in new recipes.
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    Culinary Learning

  • Explore the vocabulary of cooking with your child. Dice means to cut into tiny squares shaped like dice. Mince means to chop into very tiny pieces. Purée means to make food into a smooth, thick liquid, usually using a blender or food processor. Simmer means to cook just below the boiling point so small bubbles rise to the surface.
  • Enhance math skills. Keep a conversion chart handy for when your child wants to make more or less than a recipe calls for. Supply a variety of measuring utensils, such as a kitchen scale and multiple sets of measuring cups and spoons.
  • Use your kitchen as a science laboratory. It’s easy to observe the chemistry of foods when sugar dissolves in hot water, gelatin changes from a liquid to a solid in the refrigerator, yeast causes dough to rise, water boils into steam and a soft-boiled egg blackens a silver teaspoon (the sulfur in the egg white does it). Let your child know that metal conducts heat, so rather than stirring something hot with a metal spoon, she should use plastic or wood.

    And if you really want to don the lab coat, this simple experiment shows how chemicals from our body (the enzymes in saliva) break down starch molecules. Have your child spit into a small jar of baby-food bananas or sweet potatoes. Leave the jar on the counter overnight. By morning, the enzymes in the saliva will have turned most of the starchy food into a liquid.

  • Make carrot curls. Using a vegetable peeler, shave off long strips of carrot and pop them into a bowl of ice water. The strips will curl because the fibers on the outer edges of the carrot are longer and more stretched out from growing. Ice water tightens the stretched fibers and makes them curl.
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    Beyond the Kitchen

  • Create a salad bar to go. Take your child shopping to choose fresh ingredients and dressings for a home salad bar. Try to include at least one vegetable that neither of you has ever tasted. Turn a salad into a meal with homemade biscuits.
  • Follow Mother Nature’s lead. Discuss what it means for foods to be "in season," when they’re at their least expensive and often their tastiest. Talk about how important climate and weather are to what you find in your local supermarket. Sometimes the prices of certain vegetables and fruits are much higher than usual, perhaps due to an unexpected chill having destroyed much of the crop in faraway states or countries.
  • Document successes. Encourage your child to compile his own cookbook of tried-and-true recipes, perhaps illustrated with drawings or photos. Or he may prefer collecting recipes he’d like to try someday. He might want to ask friends and relatives for their favorite recipes.
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    After all the food is ready, make sure that you make dinnertime a special time for the whole family. Don't miss our 12 creative ways to make dinnertime a fun time

    For more activities that combine fun and learning, visit the
    Playing Smart Archive.

    Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of "Playing Smart: The Family Guide to
    Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14" (Free Spirit
    Publishing, 2001), from which her columns are adapted. Check out Susan¹s Web
    site at

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