One of my favorite things to do on a weekend afternoon with my daughters is cooking.
I really feel that little ones need to learn how to do things when they’re interested and not when they’re “old enough,” so Helena, 5, was learning the same things as Sophie, 7, right next to her at the counter. There is a lot of learning to be had in cooking.
One of the first things they start to learn, without even realizing they are learning, is math. We measure things all the time. I always ask them to help me find measurements on the side of our measuring cup. Helena only recognizes whole numbers right now, so I ask her to find “1, 2” if I want ½, for instance.
We also do a lot of counting when we add ingredients — whether it’s three cups, two eggs, or “one big spoon and one little spoon” of vanilla. We count pieces of carrot as we put them into the pot. We talk about time and watch our kitchen timer count down the minutes until our rolls will be ready to come out of the oven.
In addition to learning math, they’re also learning science. Some of their questions knock my socks off. “Why did the dough get big?” (After we let our pizza dough rise.) “What made it turn brown?” (When we pulled muffins from the oven.) “How hot does the water have to get before it makes steam?”
All very good questions that I tried to give very simple answers to. “The yeast is like little guys. They ate the sugar and had to burp. See all of the burp bubbles in this dough that weren’t there before?”
And, “Remember the butter and eggs we put into the batter? They have something called proteins. When proteins get very hot, like in our oven, they turn brown. If we kept letting them cook, they would burn and turn black.”
And lastly, “I don’t know, hon ... let’s check Google. (The basic steam point of water is when it is heated to a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit — thank you Google, followed by a lesson on how to read the thermometer.) Now, I know my answers aren’t 100 percent accurate, but I was talking to a 4-year-old. She just wanted an answer, not a lecture.
Then there’s reading. Helena is very interested in deciphering this reading thing. Just like her big sister, she doesn’t like having everyone around her know how to communicate in a secret way that she doesn’t understand.
So, she knows all of her letters and the sounds they make already. When we cook together, I always take all of the ingredients we’ll need out of the cupboards and set them on the counter where we’ll be working. I make a point to read the recipe aloud while my finger runs below the words I’m reading.
I’ll read, “One teaspoon of nutmeg.” Then it’s her job to find the nutmeg on the counter. “Let’s see, what letter does nnnn-nutmeg start with?” She’ll get it right or wrong, doesn’t matter. I’ll either correct her or agree.
The next step is, “Do you remember what an ‘N’ looks like? Can you find which one starts with ‘N’ for ‘nutmeg’?” She usually gets it right! As she gets more comfortable with the alphabet and phonics (on her own!), I’ll start asking about ending sounds, then middle sounds. Eventually, she’ll be reading the recipe and I’ll be searching for the ingredients!
History can be learned in the kitchen! This is where my oldest had the most fun. For over a year, she was very interested in all things medieval. We used our kitchen to learn about the Middle Ages more than anywhere else in or out of the house.
We learned how to dye fabric using natural dyes. We did the old “castle out of sugar cubes” thing. We made grog and tasted it — didn’t like it!
Once a week, we made a feast, using recipes we found online. We ate turkey legs with our hands, made bread and stews from scratch. We had to go shopping for ingredients we never heard of and had to learn how to make substitutions when we found that certain things just aren’t available in the stores!
We learned how people got their food — whether they grew it, bought it, or just did without. We learned about the weather back then and how hard it was for people to grow food in the cloudy and cold era. I think I learned as much as the girls did!
And, finally, there are those pesky “life skills” that are learned in the kitchen. Washing dishes, making your own meal, organizing cupboards, planning ahead (grocery lists), and general hygiene are just a few of the things they learn.
Then there are the ones we don’t think about: Emergency medical treatments (like when we learned about how you need to put cold water or ice on Mommy’s burn.) And how to take things in stride and find solutions (like when we find out we’re out of butter and are halfway through making a cake!)