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Classroom cooking: Learning to cut, mash, and spread

by Louise Parks


Few preschool classroom activities offer greater support for skill development—cognitive, social, emotional, and physical—than cooking. Further, building cooking skills is authentic, practical, and essential to long-term social and physical well-being.

As in all learning, children need a guide—in this case a cooking partner—who can recognize the skills that already exist and can tweak activities to refine and expand those skills. Help the children in your group share their pride in accomplishment, and resist the urge to do the tasks yourself—even though you can do them quicker and tidier.

Focus on the sensory experiences that come with new ingredients and techniques; take time to touch, smell, watch, and taste. Children are almost always ready to sample what they have created—even when ingredients are unfamiliar.

As you prepare cooking activities and observe children build cooking skills, remember to document learning. You may choose to use a camera or recorder or simply transcribe conversations that highlight new learning and discovery. Ideally, your documentation will reflect children’s:
confidence and self-esteem,
creativity and individuality,
emerging math skills reflected in measuring, counting, sequence, and the passage of time,
ability to follow directions—both given orally and illustrated in charts,
strength and perseverance,
hand-eye coordination,
understanding of cause-and-effect,
small and large motor skills,
emerging literacy skills reflected in using symbols, recognizing sequences, making predictions, and describing materials and actions,
sense of teamwork and ability to cooperate, and
food knowledge including familiarity with ingredients, processes, and techniques as well as emerging understanding of nutrition, food sources, and appreciation.

The cooking activities in this article focus on three specific motor skills: cutting, mashing, and spreading. Take the time to observe and guide. You’ve likely already seen how children smooth sand, negotiate puzzle pieces, and hold a paintbrush. Each of these is related to the muscle and coordination skills cooking requires. Help children learn to twist the wrist (smooth), press a tool deliberately (mash), and saw back and forth (cut).

Mud and play clay—ever present in preschool classrooms—are great practice materials to use with mashers, plastic serrated knives, and spreaders like offset spatulas and wide craft sticks.

Health and safety are logical concerns in all cooking activities. Vigilant supervision is essential. Establish a set of consistent food handling rules; make a large chart that you can use every time you plan a cooking activity. According to the ages and skills of the children, heed the following guidelines:
Children can demonstrate proper hand washing technique—consistently.
Children’s hair and clothing are pulled back and out of the way. Teach how to cuff sleeves; provide aprons; and discuss why chefs and commercial cooks wear hairnets and hats.
Children know to sneeze into the elbow, to turn the whole body to cough, and to rewash hands after touching hair, face, or each other.
Children understand that different utensils are used for food preparation, serving, and eating. Mixing spoons, for example, are never used for tasting. Consider color-coding utensils with plastic tape to identify their use.
Avoid foods that are choking hazards like whole grapes, nuts, hard raw vegetables, and popcorn. Insist that children take small bites and chew thoroughly.
Respect food allergies and restrictions. Choose only those recipes that all the children in the group can prepare and eat.
Classroom food activities are geared to nutrition and consumption. Playing with food (finger painting with pudding or driving trucks through oatmeal in the sensory table, for example) is confusing and disrespectful.

Individual servings enable every child to participate in the activity equally, encourage individuality, and discourage the germ-sharing that’s inevitable when all the children in the group attend to the same bowl of batter.

Use the following recipes to inspire ways you can incorporate cooking in your classroom. Some recipes are designed for toddlers—and other inexperienced cooks. Others have both ingredients and preparation steps that rely on familiarity with cooking procedures. Consider making rebus picture cards to help children work independently—and to save you from repeating the same direction over and over. Enjoy!


Fruit pops
Here’s what you need for each cook:
½ banana
½ cup unsweetened fruit juice
measuring cup
8-ounce paper cup
craft stick
small bowl
metal fork for mashing


Advance preparation:
1. Cut bananas in half and place in a bowl.
2. Pour juice into a pitcher with a handle.
3. Write each child’s name on a craft stick.


Cook’s activities:
1. Wash and dry hands.
2. Choose a banana half and peel it. Put the banana in a small bowl.
3. Use a fork to mash the banana. Alternatively, provide flat bottomed bowls and potato mashers. Encourage children to hold the lip of the bowl with one hand and to use the strong muscles of the other hand to mash. The banana should be thoroughly mashed and smooth.
4. Measure ½ cup of juice in a measuring cup.
5. Pour the juice into the bowl with the banana, and stir to combine.
6. Pour the mixture into a paper cup, and insert the labeled craft stick into the mixture.
7. Freeze until solid.
8. At snack time, peel the paper cup away.

Fruit pops are a perfect (and nutritious) snack for a hot day.


Pineapple cheese spread
Here’s what you need for each cook:
1 ounce mild cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon crushed pineapple
small bowl
plastic cheese grater
metal fork for mashing
measuring spoon
plastic serrated knife
whole wheat crackers


Advance preparation:
1. Cut cheese into cubes.
2. Label small bowls with children’s names.


Cook’s activities:
1. Wash and dry hands.
2. Grate cheese into bowl.
3. Measure 1 tablespoon pineapple into bowl.
4. Mash cheese and pineapple together.
5. Refrigerate until serving time.
6. Spread the cheese mixture onto crackers. Show children that the cracker is likely to break if held up for spreading. Place the cracker flat on a plate instead.

Encourage conversation at mealtime with questions about how you might vary the recipe: “What other fruit might you mix with cheese?” “Would this be tasty on rye bread?”


Jicama and mango salad
Here’s what you need for each cook:
½ cup jicama
½ cup mango
lime wedge
cutting board
plastic serrated knife
small bowl
mixing spoon


Advance preparation:
1. Wash and peel jicama. Cut jicama into long ½-inch spears and place in bowl.
2. Wash and peel mango. Cut into long ½-inch spears and place in bowl.
3. Cut limes into wedges—8 wedges per lime.
4. Label small bowls with children’s names.


Cook’s activities:
1. Wash and dry hands.
2. Choose two jicama spears. Cut the spears into small pieces, each about ½-inch long. Place in labeled bowl.
3. Choose two mango spears. Cut the spears into small pieces, each about ½-inch long. Place in labeled bowl.
4. Squeeze lime over the fruit and stir to combine.
5. Refrigerate until serving time.

Both mango and jicama may be unfamiliar to children. Jicama is a tuber and potato-like in texture. The taste is mild, slightly sweet, and crunchy. Mango is soft and smooth, banana-like in texture, and citrusy. Encourage conversation about texture and taste. Ask why the two foods seem to make a good combination.

Note: Jicama requires thorough chewing—it is served raw and may pose the same choking risk as raw carrot.


Olive cheese wheels
Here’s what you need for each cook:
1 flour tortilla
1 ounce cream cheese
2 pitted olives—green or ripe
small bowl
cutting board
plastic serrated knife
small plate
offset spatula or other spreading tool


Advance preparation:
1. Place tortillas on a plate.
2. Cut cream cheese into 1-inch squares (about 1 ounce each) and place in a bowl.
3. Put olives in a bowl.


Cook’s activities:
1. Wash and dry hands.
2. Choose 2 olives and place on cutting board. Use knife to cut olives into small slivers.
3. Choose 1 square of cream cheese and put in bowl. Add olives to the bowl, and mash to combine.
4. Choose 1 tortilla and place it on the cutting board. Spread the cheese mixture on the tortilla.
5. Start at one end and roll the tortilla tightly into a spiral. Use the knife to cut the tortilla into ½-inch wheels.
6. Refrigerate until serving time.

Olives may be unfamiliar to children. Consider a tasting activity to introduce the difference in tastes of green and ripe (black) olives.


Deviled eggs
Here’s what you need for each cook:
hard-boiled egg
plastic serrated knife
small bowl
metal fork for mashing
condiments including pickle relish, yellow mustard, mayo, capers, olives, ham slices
small plate labeled with cook’s name


Advance preparation:
1. Hard boil eggs. To help ensure easy peeling, use older eggs. Put eggs in a saucepan and cover with an inch of cold water. Turn on heat and bring water to a boil. Cover the saucepan, turn off heat, and set timer for 12 minutes. Drain the hot water and cool eggs by placing them in a bowl of ice water.
2. Gather tools and place condiments in individual small bowls with spoons. Label children’s serving plates.


Cook’s activities:
1. Wash and dry hands.
2. Peel egg. Show children how to gently crack the egg shell and peel it from the egg.
3. Use the knife to cut the egg in half. Scoop the yolk into a small bowl.
4. Mash the yolk with a fork until it forms a paste.
5. Choose condiments and add about ½ teaspoon of each to the yolk. Stir gently.
6. Spoon half the yolk mixture into each half of the egg.
7. Refrigerate until serving time.

At mealtime ask questions that encourage children to identify and compare tastes and textures. The deviled egg is likely to be salty (with capers, mustard, ham, and relish) and have several textures (egg white, yolk, and yolk with condiments).


Avocado toast
Here’s what you need for each cook:
¼ ripe avocado
lemon wedge
pinch of cumin powder
pinch of minced garlic
1 slice of whole wheat bread, toasted
small bowl
cutting board
offset spatula or alternative spreading tool
metal fork for mashing
small plate


Advance preparation:
1. Cut avocado into quarters. Peel each quarter.
2. Cut lemon into 8 wedges.
3. Place cumin and garlic into individual bowls.
4. Introduce the concept of pinch (an amount smaller than ¹/₁₆th teaspoon) to the children.


Cook’s activities:
1. Wash and dry hands.
2. Choose an avocado wedge and place in bowl.
3. Choose lemon wedge and squeeze over avocado.
4. Mash the avocado with the metal fork until smooth.
5. Add a pinch of cumin and a pinch of garlic to the mixture and stir.
6. Refrigerate until serving time.
7. Spread the avocado mixture on toast (or a tortilla or crackers).

If you choose to make toast in the classroom, review safety rules regarding heat and electric appliances.


Colker, L. J. (2005). The Cooking Book: Fostering Young Children’s Learning and Delight. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Gold, R. (2006). Kids Cook 1-2-3: Recipes for Young Chefs Using Only 3 Ingredients. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Children’s Books.