Cooking with Your Child as Occupational Therapy at Home


December 28, 2021

When you have a special needs child, all of the appointments and homework adds up.  You might see 3 or 4 different therapists, plus specialists, plus other appointments.  Everyone has something for you, as the parent, to do. It’s like you can never do enough, and if your child fails, it will be your fault.

Occupational therapy exercises can be especially hard to add to your day. Kids find many of them boring and it feels like both parent and kid are minutes away from an epic meltdown.  But what if there was a way to improve self-control, fine motor skills, emotional control, and concentration that was fun and rewarding for both parent and child alike? Enter, cooking! 

Note: While cooking classes are an excellent way to practice OT skills at home and progress faster with treatment, it’s not a replacement for OT.  A good OT can spot places where your child struggles and underlying core skill needs that a parent or chef cannot.  

How Cooking Overlaps with Occupational Therapy

There are many places where cooking actually overlaps with the skills your child is learning in occupational therapy:

Fine Motor Skills.

Knife-work, measuring, stirring, sauteeing, decorating, and plating all require fine motor control.  Cooking every day can strengthen muscles and develop new movements.  Your child also has to repeat these movements multiple times in a single recipe.  It’s a workout, but because there’s a goal, it’s more fun. 

Following steps in order.

For many kids, breaking a task into manageable chunks is a big OT goal. Following a recipe teaches kids to see how a big task is made of steps in sequence. Best of all, they get immediate feedback – do the steps in the wrong order or leave a step out, and the recipe doesn’t work.

Emotional control.

OTs help our kids stay calm and try again when things don’t go their way.  To learn this skill for big life events kids need to practice with small, easily fixable problems.  With cooking, things will sometimes go wrong.  But there’s always a chance to start over and do better.  The lessons of cooking transfer to the harder parts of life, and can reduce meltdowns. 

Food-related sensory issues.

To expand a child’s food choices, you need to introduce them to new foods gradually and gently. Cooking together is a natural way to integrate this into your daily life, in a way that lets your child see your enthusiasm.   When a child selects, shops for, preps, cooks, and serves a food, they’re much closer to the point where they will be able to eat it. Becoming familiar with food preparation helps overcome sensory issues, and is less stressful for you, too.  Even if they don’t eat the meal, at least they gained other skills.

Focus and concentration.

If your child needs to practice focusing on a task, cooking is great.  Many steps take a few minutes to complete, and you have to pay attention to timers or your food will burn.  Learning to focus and persevere on interesting tasks with a clear reward at the end (like cookies!) can help your child transfer these skills to other settings.

Tips for Using Cooking at Home-based OT

Now that you can see the benefits of cooking, the question is: “How can I find the energy and patience to cook with my child?”  Cooking with tweens and teens can be exhausting, but there are big pay-offs if you persevere.  You’re helping your child become independent, learn new skills, find new strengths, and become a fully contributing member of the family.  So, where to start?

#1 Choose a time when you don’t have to be somewhere later.

Rushed cooking is miserable cooking, especially for a beginner.  Choose a quiet time where you can focus on the meal preparation, and where you have time to try again if there are some big mistakes or meltdowns.

#2 Lay out all your tools and ingredients at the beginning. 

Having your child lay out everything at the beginning teaches organization. It will also help you avoid panic later when you can’t find something.  Keeping a calm kitchen is essential for using cooking as OT.

#3 Support, but don’t control.

Your child will not do things exactly as you would, especially at first.  Give advice gently and resist the urge to take the project away from them.

#4 Use the time to chat and connect.

It’s easy to be a perfectionist and become too stressed about the results to enjoy the cooking process. When introducing your child to cooking, try to be flexible. Instead of fussing at them as they learn new skills, chat about life, family, and memories.  Make cooking time a bonding time.

#5 Teach your child how to troubleshoot their results.

Very few recipes turn out exactly how you expected on the first try.  This is a time to model how to improve the recipe.  Did you leave out an ingredient? Cook too long or not long enough? Is it just that you’d like another or a different flavor?  Talk about this, and develop a plan for improving the recipe.

#6 Have fun and keep trying!

OT is hard work, even when there’s the fun of cooking involved.  Set aside a regular time to work together on cooking.  You’ll be shocked at how quickly kitchen skills and life skills improve.

Want to dig in deeper? Here are some great resources:

The Child Development Institute has great tips on making muffins with children.

The OT Toolbox has specific steps for working on executive function using cooking skills.

Or, if you’d like help teaching your child kitchen skills and improving your own skills, try one of our classes!

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