Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Want Your Kids To Do Well In School? Cook With Them!

Do you want your children to do well in school?  Of course you do.  Every parent does.  I've never met one parent who said "I don't care if my kid gets good grades.  I don't care if my kid struggles in school.  I don't care if my kid learns anything."

So, let me ask you this.  When was the last time you cooked with your child?

No, really.  This is a post about kids doing well in school, and I am asking a question about cooking.

How does school success relate to cooking with your kids?

Well, numero uno is that if you cook with your kids (which, I admit, when you are time-strapped and starving, can be a big pain in the a**), you are obviously involved with them.  If you take the time to cook with them, to teach them about food and food safety, and feeding themselves, you are more involved with them than the parent who doesn't.  And, IMHO, a major key to having kids that are successful at anything is having a parent (or other significant adult) who is involved.

A second way that cooking with your kids helps them in school is that they learn to pay attention to details.  How does a carrot differ from a piece of bread?  From a slice of cheese?  From a can of soup?  Well, a carrot doesn't melt on the counter on a summer day like a slice of cheese will.  You can't ball it up in your fist like you can a slice of bread.  You can cut it and it doesn't run all over the place, like if you open that can of soup and tip it sideways.  A carrot is a solid, it's very firm, and it's shape is not much affected by temperature changes. On the flip side, all those items are like a carrot in some way.  They are all edible (well, the soup is, not so much the can).  They can all be cut (the can, not so much the soup).  Cheese can be orange like a carrot.  Cheese and bread can both be grated like a carrot.  If you heat the bread too long, it turns black, and so will a carrot if heated too long.   So, cooking can be a way to teach lots of observational principals, as well as many science topics.

Cooking can teach and/or improve counting skills.  I need 8 cups of sliced apples to make a pie.  My little kids can count each cup as I slice enough apples to fill it, then dump the cup into the bowl where the sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg wait in preparation of becoming pie filling with the apple slices.  They can learn addition skills, and even multiplication, if I use the 4-cup measure instead of the 1-cup:  4 cups plus another 4 cups makes the 8 cups needed for the pie; we fill the 4 cup measure twice, and we have enough apple slices, so 4 times 2 equals 8.  Math that is tangible, math without tears.

Cooking can also teach fractions.  Slice a sandwich in half at lunch time.  Then, in half again for four equal sections.  Viola, quarters!  And mini sandwiches that small children will think are just too cool for words.  :0)  Older children, who recognize fractions, can practice multiplying and dividing them by making a recipe bigger or smaller, thus needing to change 3/4 cup of milk in the pancake recipe to 1 1/2 cups for a double batch of pancakes, or  1 1/3 cups sugar in the 9" x 13" pan size recipe of peanut butter swirl brownies to 2/3 cup sugar for a recipe that will fit into an 8" x 8" pan.  (I realize the brownie example is unrealistic: nobody ever wants less peanut butter swirl brownies.  In my defense, I sell them at the farmers market in 8" x 8" pans, hence the need to sometimes halve the recipe.)

Cooking teaches measuring skills.  How are solids measured?  How are liquids measured?  When measuring something, do you look up at it?  Down at it?  Sideways at it?  Or do you adjust to be at eye-level with the thing you are measuring?  This is something DD2 commented to me last week on her second day of school--her junior year of high school--when she was telling me about an activity her Chemistry class had done, and how she was one of the few people in the class who knew how to properly measure a liquid.  She incredulously asked her classmates:  "Do none of you cook?!?" because that is where she learned to measure liquids, in the kitchen helping her mother cook.

Cooking teaches a lot of science.  Heating causes chemical reactions that change the physical properties of many foods.  Hence an egg, which is pretty liquid once you remove the shell, becomes a solid when you hard boil it, fry it, scramble it. . .   Butter, a solid, becomes a liquid when you heat it.  And if you heat it at too high a heat for too long, it goes from a pale yellow to a brown or even black color.  What about if you mix baking soda and vinegar?  What happens?  Gas is released: a chemical change made visible when foaming occurs at the point that the two substances mix and react.

Cooking also teaches reading.  How can you try a new recipe if you don't know how to read the words in the cookbook?  And how well does the recipe turn out if you don't read the words in the proper order?  Or if you read 'bake 30 minutes' as 'broil 30 minutes'?  Not going to get the same results broiling as you would baking.

Cooking teaches patience.  Not always do we get what we want when we want it.  I might want a chocolate chip cookie, but if I eat one straight out of the oven things aren't going to turn out all that well.  Most likely I'll remember the blisters on my tongue and roof of my mouth made by the 375 degree molten chocolate more than I'll remember how that cookie tasted.  I must wait for the cookie to cool before I can eat it.

Cooking teaches that things come with effort.  You have to put in some time, some effort, sometimes even some muscle (ever kneaded bread dough by hand?), to get a meal.  It doesn't just magically appear on the table at scheduled times.  Back to that apple pie with the 8 cups of sliced apples. . . have you ever made a pie completely from scratch?  Have you pared and cored and sliced the apples?  How long did that take?  Have you measured and mixed the filling ingredients?  Have you made the crust yourself--and how long did it take, how many frustrating attempts, before you got the hang of rolling out the dough for the pie crust into a nice even circle?  An apple pie takes nearly an hour to bake.  Then longer, even, than that to cool enough to be able to be eaten.  Talk about effort, patience, perseverance (rolling that darn pie crust just right) and the concept of delayed gratification!

Hmm.  Effort.  Patience.  Perseverance.  Delayed gratification.  Aren't those some very real things that are required for success in school?  Success in life?

Cook with your kids.  It will do them a world of good.

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