Cooking up early literacy skills with your kids!

Cooking up early literacy skills with your kids!

Cooking and literacy go hand in hand. Even the most basic recipe requires not only the ability to read, but to follow directions measuring ingredients and preparing them accordingly. Not only does cooking promote literacy, but many different kinds of literacy: of course reading and writing, but also math, science, technology, nutrition, health, culture and historical literacies, as well as culinary literacy, which is increasingly at risk with today’s kids. In this article we will show you how cooking can foster early literacy and highlight both library programs which combine cooking and literacy and ways to use your local public library’s resources to do this on your own.

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The Recipe for “Early Readers”

From a practical standpoint, a recipe is like an early reader or board book. Following a recipe requires basic reading comprehension to interpret, builds vocabulary skills by introducing the names of common and less commonly-occurring ingredients and helps children learn to understand the steps in the process: i.e., sequential concepts. Recipes from different regions of the country or different countries can introduce cultural and linguistic diversity as well as highlight the delicious differences in global cuisine. Creating a recipe is a fun and interactive exercise of a child’s writing and communication skills. it requires a mastery of simple syntax and sufficient familiarity with the subject matter to come up with basic instructions.

From Shopping Lists to Home Economics

It is very easy to branch out conceptually from the recipe to the menu. Involving children in the meal-planning process builds a different set of literacies. For example, ensuring that a meal is balanced and healthy requires attention to nutritional literacy, while making sure that the shopping list reflects all of the necessary ingredients in the correct number and proportions exercises math literacy. Making sure that these meals are affordable as well brings in a much-needed and often-overlooked emphasis on basic economic literacy as well.

Social Benefits of Cooking With Children

Aside from building literacies, cooking with children affords several important social benefits as well. Cooking can foster that incomparable sense of reward and accomplishment one feels when they do something new or step out their comfort zone. It is a well-documented fact that in many households children are less and less likely to learn how to cook, so that children lack any sense of confidence in the kitchen. Cooking with children shows them that basic culinary literacy skills are not beyond their reach.

Cooking is also an inherently social activity. Learning how to cook is a form of inter-generational cultural communication, as parents and caregivers pass down not just culinary skills but family stories and community lore as well. Learning how to cook for a group — be it your family, your friends or any other gathering — is to learn how to seek consensus in the face of differing and often strong opinions (just try getting a room full of people to agree on what to put on their pizza, let alone decide on a full dinner menu!).

The Library as Culinary Literacy Hub

In 2014 the Free Library of Philadelphia opened its Culinary Learning Center, a commercial-grade kitchen which serves as a classroom for all kinds of delicious hands-on educational library programming. “We offer a wide range of programs for eaters of all interests and tastes — our kitchen classes range from Meatless Mondays to Fish Without Fear, butchering demonstrations to salad how-tos,” reads the program description on the Culinary Learning Center’s website. “All programs are designed to empower Philadelphians to take charge at the market and behind the stove!” Cooking classes at the Culinary Learning Center have featured top Philly chefs and restaurateurs, including Iron Chef Jose Garces.

Other public libraries have followed suit with cooking classes of their own. The Maitland Public Library offers a Healthy Chefs and Cultural Cooks series, as well as a Fresh For Kids Cooking Class specifically for children. At the North Bend Public Library in Oregon, basic cooking skills are incorporated into a broader “Adulting 101” series of programs meant to teach literacies that essential for adulthood — culinary, financial, employment, news, housing and real estate and other basic life skills like changing the oil in your car, resetting an outlet or cleaning your oven — but increasingly overlooked in our education system.

Check Out Your Own Culinary Literacy Resources

Even if your local public library doesn’t have culinary literacy programming, the library can still be an invaluable resource for teaching cooking and literacy. As many children’s books are about cooking and food, it is very easy to use titles from your children’s library as culinary inspiration — from classic choices such as Eric Carle’s Today is Monday and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judith Barrett to more contemporary titles like Lois Ehlert’s Eating the Alphabet. There is also the growing genre of cookbooks for children to check out and media offerings featuring aspiring kid chefs such as Chopped Junior on the Food Network or MasterChef Junior on FOX.

When planning cooking activities for children, be sure to know if there any dietary restrictions or food allergies you need to plan around: e.g., does anyone have a peanut allergy or a metabolic disorder such as diabetes or phenylketonuria? Will there be any vegetarian or vegan children? Are there requirements for keeping kosher or halal? If younger children will be participating, you will also need to worry about choking, the dangers of working with heat or sharp knives or other dangerous cooking implements.

Let’s Serve Up Some Fun!

Remember to keep your cooking objective achievable during the amount of time given, with the goal being able not just to start and finish but to clean up (another overlooked “literacy”) as well. Keep in mind that feeling of accomplishment, which is just as important as a takeaway as the food itself. When teaching, use a familiar and tested recipe so that you can focus on the social interaction and fun of instruction. Speaking of which, don’t forget to have fun! Culinary literacy isn’t just an essential life skill, but a great source of entertainment, joy and satisfaction as well. Above all, be sure to impart the joy of cooking along with the cooking itself, and children will undoubtedly keep coming back for second helpings.