Cooking with kids

In the Montessori preschool classroom, an entire section of the curriculum is devoted to “Practical Life”. Practical Life activities embrace care of oneself and care for the environment. It includes things like learning to lace and tie shoes, close a door quietly, clean a table, sweep the floor, and sew a button. Preparing food for snack is also part of the practical life curriculum in the classroom. 

Even the youngest toddler enjoys activities involving food preparation. Toddlers can peel and slice bananas, stir together the ingredients for biscuits, and knead and shape them (think edible playdough!). They can help peel and separate oranges and hull strawberries.

Including children in meal prep is a wonderful way to combine time together with practical learning and skill development. Here’s how to make the experience fun for everyone.

Slow Down and Let Go

Remember that every child is still developing fine motor skills. Let go of any expectations that every step of the process will be executed quickly or neatly. Expect a little more mess and adjust the time needed for prep. Allow your child to go at their own pace, which may be much slower than doing it yourself. Give yourselves time to stop and clean up as you go along. 

Remind yourself that practice is the path to improvement. Let them try. Each time they will get better and faster, but in the beginning, we need to allow for the mishaps of early experience with a task. Not all the flour will end up in the bowl. Some of the eggshells will end up in the bowl. Carrots won’t be as neatly peeled as you might have done. Diced may look more like chopped. The imperfections won’t matter to the finished dish and there is value in providing the opportunity to learn a new skill or practice a familiar one

Prepare the workspace

Before you begin working together, get organized. If you are cooking with 2-4 year olds, you may choose to measure out the ingredients ahead of time. On the other hand, letting them help gather supplies and ingredients is good practice in following directions, provided items are stored on low shelves that are accessible to small people.

Lay out a large plastic cutting board to work on, so that it can be lifted and carried to the sink for cleaning. Have appropriate utensils at hand. Soft foods, like bananas and strawberries, can be safely cut by young children with specially designed knives that are not sharp. Smaller spoons and whisks can also help smaller children be more successful.

Don’t Show and Tell

Talking as you are demonstrating requires the child to simultaneously process both what they are seeing and what they are hearing. Instead, when helping your child do a new task, take a tip from the Montessori classroom and separate the telling from the showing. Begin by saying what you are going to show them, without any movement. 

Then show them slowly and carefully how to do it, without speaking. This allows them to focus on watching what you are doing and eliminates the need to also process what they are hearing. This video from Viola Montessori is a great example of what this looks like.

Cooking together provides children with practical skills they will use for a lifetime. By the time they are tweens, they will have the experience to prepare meals for themselves and their family. 

Enjoy your time together in the kitchen! Leave a comment and let us know how it goes.

The Link Between Food and Mental Health

The choices we make when we eat affects more than just our weight, heart, and physical health. The role of nutrition in mental health has been shown to be just as important.

Studies of diet and exercise for mental health have shown a significant link between food and mental health.  What we eat can affect our mood, how we feel, and how well we cope with stress in life. Says Dr. Eva Selhub,  “Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. 

This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. 

Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

For many years I worked in an office, surrounded by others, all of us in cubicles. I had a cup of coffee at home, then another when I got to work.  I worked productively throughout the morning, which I attributed to being a “morning person”. I was always productive and full of energy at the start of the day.

After lunch, I resumed work, a little less energetically. By 3 pm I’d hit an energy low. Problem-solving became more difficult.  So I’d have a diet cola mid-afternoon. It gave me a boost for the last stretch of the workday.

I’d commute home, have dinner, and by 8 pm I hit another low.  My brain was mush and I was exhausted. Every day was the same – clear-headed and mentally energetic in the morning, brain fog by 3pm, caffeine-assist mid-afternoon, and crash by 8pm.

But then, during the height of popularity for detox ‘cleansing’, I did a 3-day juice ‘cleanse’ over a weekend.  I spent the weekend with a classic caffeine withdrawal (excruciating) headache. But by Monday morning I was on the other side and the headache was gone.  I hated the idea of having endured that headache for nothing. So I decided to stay off the caffeine.

The impact of that one small change in my diet was astonishing.  Without the caffeine, my energy level for the entire day remained steady.  My brain was fully functioning all the way to bedtime. I wasn’t crashing mid-afternoon, so didn’t need the soda to make it to the end of the workday.  I got to the other side of the dinner hour and still had mental and physical energy. It was amazing to enjoy the evening, instead of watching the clock as I held up my weary head for at least as long as the kids were still up.

I was amazed at how the caffeine I’d been drinking – just two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon – had impacted my mental and physical health for the entire day.  I was happier and healthier without the caffeine.

What we eat really does affect how we feel and how well we cope.  Says licensed nurse Carolyn Denton, “The food we eat gives our bodies the “information” and materials they need to function properly. If we don’t get the right information, our metabolic processes suffer, and our health declines.  If we get too much food or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Functional Medicine practitioners examine the role of nutrition in chronic disease, they look at multiple systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system, and the detoxification system, because of the interconnections between those systems. For instance, because 80% of the immune system is contained in the gastrointestinal system, a person’s issues with immunity could be related to faulty digestion.”

Many studies have also looked at the impact of nutrition on young children.  A review of the research done in 2014 found that a poor diet is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.   

They conclude that there is an important relationship between diet patterns or quality and mental health early in life.  The evidence also indicates that what we – and our children – eat may play an important part in preventing or managing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and dementia.

Says the UK Mental Health Foundation, “Just like the heart, stomach, and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and water to remain healthy.” 

Included in this report is a chart of these essential nutrients, the impact they have on our mental health, and the foods that can increase their presence in our bodies.  (see sidebar)

Not surprisingly, good nutrition includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meat, fish, and dairy.  These foods, known to benefit our heart and liver, also benefit our minds, memory, and emotions.  

And while a healthy diet helps everyone’s mental health and brain function, for infants and children under the age of 3, whose bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again, good nutrition also feeds their ability to learn, setting them up for a lifetime of benefit.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori toddler teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.