Cooking in the Classroom: Resources for Planning Effective Instruction

Cooking in the Classroom for Students with AutismOne of the activities I frequently recommend in the classroom is cooking, particularly for older students.  Cooking is a good way to include a variety of students in a task at each of their own levels and to work on a variety of academic and functional like skills.  I like it as a task for students of all ages, but it becomes increasingly important as students get older and need to learn skills to learn skills for living on their own or with support.  Cooking gives you the opportunity to work on reading skills, listening skills (e.g., one student can read the recipe and one can complete the steps), sequencing, nutrition, meal planning, math for measuring and adjusting recipes, use a variety of kitchen tools, and on and on.  It also is very motivating to students because typically they get to eat what they make. A couple of things to think about in cooking in the classroom, in addition to what tools you have available to the job, is how to make sure that each student is an active participant and determining what to cook.

Too many times, recipes turn out to be too complicated for what the students’ skills are and teachers end up doing the majority of cooking while students watch.  Clearly this was not the intention as it’s not functional for the student’s learning to simply watch someone else cook, since most of our students learn best from doing.  Here are the “top” 10 thoughts for making cooking functional within the classroom.

  1. Choose a recipe that simple enough for your students to follow with limited assistance.  If the students are not at the point where they can safely operate the stove or that is not a goal at this point, choose a noncook recipe.
  2. Plan your activity by assuring that you have specific goals for each student in the activity and that those goals are clear to all the individuals supporting them.  Having a goal for independence in reading during cooking has little impact if the peer buddy or adult doesn’t know that is what you want to focus on and you aren’t there to intervene.
  3. Plan lessons around the recipe.  These can include sequencing the steps of the recipe (before and after cooking), making a grocery list for needed ingredients, going to the grocery store and purchasing the items, and cleaning up and storing leftover ingredients.
  4. Choose a recipe that fits the needs of your students.  Younger students (e.g., elementary and preschool ages) can do theme-related recipes that go along with what they are studying in class or the book of the week.  These items are typically no-heat recipes that are appropriate for snack foods.  Older students should be working on more practical recipes that they would be able to make on their own after they transition from school.  Simple things like scrambling eggs, making coffee or tea, making toast, and cooking oatmeal might be good tasks to work on depending on the skills of the students.
  5. If you haven’t made the recipe before, do a test run.  You could do it on your own or with another student, but it is helpful to know the glitches in the process before you present it to the class to complete.
  6. Present the recipe in a manner that EVERY student in the classroom can understand.  If you have some readers and some nonreaders, consider making multiple copies of the recipe-some with pictures and some without.  This will allow each student to follow along as the item is prepared.  Visuals are a good way to help students follow written directions when their reading comprehension is problematic.  Below are resources for locating visual recipes.  
  7. Assign roles to students either through choices or by preassigning the roles based on their skills.  Roles could be assigned by writing them on slips of paper and having students pick one.  Students could earn the opportunity (through their behavioral system) to have first choice of roles in cooking.  The teacher could assign roles based on the skill they want the students to work on. For instance, a student working on reading directions could be the reader, while a student working on measuring could measure out the ingredients.  Remember that there are many roles that can go into a cooking project from setting the oven temperature, to stirring, to using a mixer or a blender, to measuring, to timing.
  8. Incorporate assistive technology and augmentative communication tools as appropriate for your students.  Students who are working on simple switch access can use a link to operate a switch and turn on a mixer or a blender.  Students using switches to communicate could use a sequential step communication (like a Step-by-Step) to read the recipe one step at a time to the group.  Students working with PECS or picture systems could ask for the ingredients needed to complete a step (and if the student is just learning to communicate, choose an ingredient that would be reinforcing that he or she can have a taste of after asking so the reinforcement is more immediate).
  9. Include instruction on good hygiene and food safety procedures.  For young children this means washing your hands before you start to cook and not licking the spoon while cooking.  For older students it could mean learning to wear gloves (as they would need to on a job site), washing hands after handling raw meat (as well as before cooking), and proper handling of food when serving.
  10. Share the food the students make.  Younger children can eat one item for their snack and take one home to their parents.  Older students could invite peers in for a snack or meal and serve them and share food.  Nothing brings people together for social interaction like food and the gives the students who did the cooking an opportunity to be proud of their accomplishments.

Web Resources for Visual Recipes:

Visual Recipes–a great site that has a wide variety of visual supports and slide shows so that you could use iPads or computers for students who are not so into paper recipes.

Your Special Chef–This site contains photos of steps of basic and common cooking activities like making grilled cheese.  It also includes downloadable lessons to guide the instruction.

Speaking of Speech Cooking Materials–These are printable Boardmaker files for thematic recipes for younger children snacks based on themes as well as some recipes for more functional cooking.

Bry-Backmanor–these are symbol recipes with few words but contain a variety of simple recipes (e.g. making jello) that are great for functional skills.

Making Learning Fun–this site offers symbol-based recipes for student snacks.

Cooking for Engineers–this site offers a variety of photo supports for cooking.  It’s a bit text heavy but for students who benefit from reading the recipe and seeing what the step looks like, it’s a good resource for practical recipes.

Students with a Difference–this site is a wiki that includes a wide variety of recipes with photo/picture supports for the steps and for communication and identification purposes.


Visual Recipes: A Cookbook for Non-Readers –this is a great book that has photos for recipes of all types of functional recipes.

Cooking to Learn from PCI –this has lessons and symbol/drawing support for a variety of real-life recipes.

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