When your child helps out in the kitchen, it’s more than a chance to teach him to cook: it’s an opportunity to work on executive function skills. Kitchen-related tasks include goal setting, creating a mental image of the end product, defining the steps needed to achieve goals, and following through with concrete actions. These tasks are all part of building and practicing executive functioning.
Next time you’re planning a dinner for a special event, holiday or barbecue, invite your child to take an active role. If you’re going to host a Thanksgiving meal later this month, this is a perfect opportunity. Start by including your child in the brainstorming and planning by making a list of the dishes you’ll serve and what the menu will be. Excitement about the end result will help with motivation! Try to find a photo of what the food will look like when it is completed to support your child’s ability to build a mental image or picture to “match” with the end product. Creating a mental image is a huge part of executive functioning.
For each dish, have your child write the ingredients needed on a shopping list. Use a grocery checklist to help guide your child (see example on page 86 in my book Make Social Learning Stick!). Encourage your child to look in the cupboard and refrigerator prior to adding ingredients to the list to see what you already have on hand.
In the grocery store, send your child out to find certain items. See if she can determine where items are located in the store based on the categories in each aisle and section. Encourage your child to make a guess based on what is already known (e.g., “If all of the salad stuff is in the produce section over here, where do you think we can find the lettuce or tomatoes?”). Ask your child to consider whether lettuce and tomatoes are likely in the same area or not. Would the spaghetti be in this area too, or somewhere else? While in the store, your child can cross foods off the list as they go into the cart.
Map out the various tasks and help your child pick specific tasks to complete. These jobs will likely require sequencing: for example, first, wash the tomatoes, then dice them, and then put them into the soup pot. You may want to create a written list, with visuals, of the tasks that your child can check off as she completes them.
Before the guests arrive, ask your child to help set the table. If needed, do the first place setting and have him “match” the others. If possible, give your child a photo or drawing showing how the table should look when it’s completed. Where does the fork go in relation to the plate? Are spoons needed for this meal? Should we use paper napkins or are cloth napkins more suitable? This is also an opportunity to practice concepts such as left/right/above/below and sequencing involved in eating a meal from start to finish (e.g., Will the soup be served before the rest of the meal, and what is needed for dessert?).
Discuss your child’s role in the dinner event, and practice before the guests arrive. Acknowledge his efforts and accomplishments by paying “compliments to the chef” and possibly finding another family member to help with the cleanup and dishes.