Cooking in the classroom with students is one of my favorite class activities. Sure, it’s messy, but it’s also fun, motivating, builds community, AND it’s a great way to use language in a real-world experience.
If you want to cook with your students but you’re hesitant, keep reading to dispel your hesitations and see why you should add cooking to your curriculum.
Benefits of cooking in the classroom with students
First, cooking is fun for students, so it is highly motivational. When the class cooks, students get to interact with each other in a different environment (who’s the Master Chef?) and this builds classroom community. Cooking can be a good activity for students to get to know each other better in the first months of school or as an end-of-year reward.
Second, cooking reinforces academic skills like reading and math. I don’t know about you, but I use fractions more when I’m cooking than any other time! Cooking requires students to read the recipe, work together and make changes to their product as needed.
Cooking can complement any subject. Teaching about WWII? Cook an authentic recipe that used common rations. Teaching science? Bake bread and discuss chemical changes. Teaching French? There’s an unwritten rule that states you must make crepes with Nutella.
Looking for something that will really grab students’ attention? One of my students’ favorite lessons was about eating and cooking insects. Read how to teach students about eating insects here.
What to cook
Ok, so I’ve convinced you of the benefits of giving cooking a try. Now let’s get down to the tips. As with any lesson, planning ahead and knowing your students are of the utmost importance.
Once you’ve decided how the cooking lesson will fit into your classroom, decide exactly what recipe(s) will be used and how much will be made. Will all students make the same recipe? Will it be more of a whole-class demonstration or will groups of students make their own dish?
If you are teaching older students, finding the recipe can be part of the learning experience. For example, groups of students learning Mandarin Chinese could each find a recipe and cook a dish from a different region of China. They will be more invested if they are a part of the planning as it will be “their” dish.
Getting ingredients and supplies
As you plan, be conscious of the availability of the ingredients. I learned this the hard way when I bought very unripe (think rock hard) avocados in Switzerland and our guacamole making the next day was pretty disastrous.
Keep price in mind, too. It’s not too expensive to buy fruits for one tropical fruit salad, but multiply that by five groups in three classes and you may want to rethink your recipe. Hopefully, your school will be able to pay for this activity, but if not, consider sources of funding like the PTO or Donor’s Choose.
If you need to buy specific cooking utensils like measuring cups or cutting boards, I’d recommend going to a dollar store to get basic supplies for the lowest price. If you are cooking something cultural you can likely order it online or find it at a specialty grocery store. Cooking in a culturally authentic way adds a lot to the lesson. When my students made tortillas I brought in a small tortilla press for them to use.
Where to cook
You may be thinking, “Cooking sounds great, Kristin, but my classroom doesn’t even have a sink, let alone a kitchen!” Unfortunately, my classrooms have never had sinks, either, which definitely makes it more difficult. However, there are a few different options here.
Many teachers have each student cook a dish at home and bring it in to share, but asking students to cook at home can be tricky. Consider equity and remember that some families struggle with food scarcity or don’t have money or transportation to be able to go to the grocery store to buy ingredients.
One year my high school Spanish classes made cooking videos in groups for a final project. I offered to buy the ingredients if they told me what they needed ahead of time and also gave them the option to film it at school during lunch or at a group member’s house. I also gave them the choice to use play or paper food to film their video. This way, each group could make a decision that worked best for the individuals in that group.
Think about what kitchens are available in your school. If you have culinary room with student kitchens, this would be the best option. You could (very politely) ask the culinary teacher to switch classrooms with you on a day when their classes are not cooking. If switching isn’t possible if you have a long lunch period you could ask your students to come during lunch or before/after school to cook in the culinary room.
Your school may have other small kitchens in the cafeteria, staff lounges or special ed rooms that might be more likely to be free.
If you absolutely can’t access a kitchen, it’s still possible to cook, you’ll just have to choose recipes that don’t require baking. One year with 5th graders I was in a tiny classroom with no sink, so we did no-bake pumpkin pies. They didn’t taste as good as real pumpkin pies, but the kids didn’t seem to care and they still checked off all my other goals for cooking.
There are also a number of countertop appliances that you can just plug in to be able to cook in your classroom. If you don’t have access to a stove top or oven, could you use a plug-in griddle? What about a toaster oven? A blender for smoothies would be possible, too.
With students of any age, it’s important to preview the cooking experience to set expectations but also to amplify the learning. If you are teaching a language class, read the recipe as a class and pre-teach the vocabulary of the ingredients, utensils and procedures. If it’s a history class, learn about the significance of the dish. Students should be familiar with the recipe before they start cooking and this will make them more likely to have a successful and enjoyable cooking experience.
The day of the cooking lesson, make sure students wash their hands and understand basic hygiene principals. Licking the spoon and then using it to stir is not ok. Yes, this has happened so now I know to explicitly teach it.
Set the expectation that everyone will cook and everyone will clean up together. Inform students of when they will be able to eat, too. Can groups eat as their food is ready or will they wait until the whole class has finished?
Reflecting on the experience
Once you all have enjoyed eating your creations, have students reflect on their dish and the cooking in the classroom experience. Did the dish turn out as expected? What went well and what could they improve for the next time?
Be forewarned–students will likely enjoy cooking so much that they will beg to do it more than once!
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