Cooking is, by far, students’ favorite Practical Life activity. I like it, too, because it’s an opportunity to remind them that food doesn’t always come prepared. It also gives them a chance to experience the satisfaction of eating something they made themselves. You’d be surprised how much more adventurous kids can be when they make food themselves. Take Ratatouille, for example. I made it with my Summer Camp attendees and despite the fact that some of them had never seen eggplant before in their lives or hated tomatoes, they all at least tasted the finished product. Even if all they have is a tiny spoonful, I consider that a success!
I try to cook with my students as often as I can, but it’s hard since we don’t have a kitchen in our classroom. We do have a school kitchen, but it’s used daily to make food for hot lunch. Also, it’s built for adults, so the countertops are too high for kids to work comfortably on them. My solution has been to do food prep in the classroom and the actual cooking in the kitchen. This has the added bonus of keeping the students away from hot stoves. I can’t tell you how much that fact lowers my stress level!
Here are some of my go-to cooking projects:
- Bread-Making: Making bread was really the first cooking activity I did with my students. I had been into making bread for classroom snack (toast) at time and one day it occurred to me that I could involve them in more of the process. (I actually designed a lesson plan for bread-making for my Teacher Training.) Making bread can be an all-day process with long intervals of waiting, so it fits perfectly into a long school day. Plus, it’s easy to make a lot of bread so you can either do mini-loaves for each student or enough for a few days’ worth of snack. (Additional Thought: For a great shortcut, use a bread machine! The students can help add the ingredients and the classroom will smell fantastic.)
- Mini pizzas: I’ve never met a kid who didn’t like pizza, so this one is a no-brainer. (Check if you have gluten free or dairy free kids. There are options if you do.) I’ve made mini pizzas a couple of different ways: with English muffins, pita bread or by giving each student some dough so he can create his or her own crust. I prefer the dough option, but it’s up to you and your schedule. If you’re using dough, you can purchase some premade and uncooked from the grocery store or make it in your KitchenAid or bread machine with little fuss. (Additional Thought: You can offer toppings, but most kids are happy with just plain cheese.)
- Monkey Bread: This one is always a big hit, and I can’t take a speck of credit for it. I got the idea from this wonderful blog about a King Arthur cooking class: A Lesson In Cinnamon Pull-Apart Bread: Monkeying Around. (Additional Thought: The lesson shows kids making individual monkey breads. I don’t do this because I don’t want to buy the wax paper baking dishes. Neither do I add the frosting. The cinnamon sugar is plenty sweet!)
- Cherry Clafouti: I discovered this dish while planning my Summer Camp curriculum. Cherry clafouti is easy to make and quite delicious to boot. The most time-consuming aspect is pitting the cherries. I thought about getting a cherry pitter, but it turned out to be completely unnecessary–the kids enjoyed pitting with a butter knife. And chatting while they worked! (Additional Thought: Cherries aren’t the only option for this dish. Any kind of berry would do, along with plums and apples.)
- Ratatouille: Another cooking project from this summer! Full of fresh, seasonal veggies, Ratatouille is a nutrient-packed dish. (Probably the healthiest on this list!) The kids enjoyed chopping zucchini, eggplant, yellow squash and mushrooms to their hearts’ content. The best part? I did the cooking in a crockpot, so the classroom smelled fantastic! (Additional Thought: Bar none, these blunt-tipped serrated knives from Montessori Services are my favorite for food prep. Probably not ideal for younger students, but perfect for Upper El. I even use them at home!)
- Smoothies: I use my Magic Bullet when I make smoothies with my students. This way, I can offer a smorgasboard of fruits and they can either experiment or choose only what they like. You can also make fresh fruit slushies or milkshakes with frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. Another option is to choose three different types of shakes or smoothies and then serve tasters rather than full servings. (Additional Thought: Honest Pretzels by Mollie Katzen has some great smoothies recipes.)
- Mini Pumpkin Pies: This is a project for anytime in the fall. I recommend canned pumpkin, mostly because baking and straining your own pumpkin can be time-consuming and messy. I also purchase premade frozen crust. We roll it out and cut circles in the dough. I used to make mini pies in mini pie tins. Now I use muffin tins instead. They’re just the right size for a serving and they take no time at all to cook. (Additional Thought: Give the students ample opportunity to smell the different spices used in pumpkin pie. For that matter, instead of pumpkin pie spice, try to use individual ones so they have a chance to smell nutmeg and cinnamon and ginger and clove instead of a mixture of all four.)
- Scones: I love scones and they’re pretty easy to make. You can make them any number of different ways, but I prefer the classic with currants. Raisins, dried cranberries and chocolate chips all work, too. Students enjoy cutting in the butter with a pastry blender (most have never seen one before) and I enjoy limiting the amount of time their hands spend in the dough. (Additional Thought: I have an electric tea kettle in my classroom, so tea time–and practice in grace and courtesy–is a natural extension of this cooking project!)
I know (from experience) that cooking with students can be stressful. So stressful, in fact, that we often forget that it can also be very rewarding. Your best defense is preparation and familiarity with the recipe you’ll be working with. Just remember: kids won’t care if their pizza is shaped like a monkey. If anything, they’ll be thrilled!