Life Skills – Cooking Activities

Life skills cooking

Life skills-cooking does not mean learning to make gourmet meals.  It means meal preparation to survive. No teenager should go off to college without the means to cook Ramen, macaroni and cheese, cereal, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Add pizza and Taco Bell to their meal plan, and voila, a complete teenage diet!

The goal for any caregiver should be to help their child be independent enough to live alone, or at least care for themselves. 

Learning independence and life skills, starts at a very young age.  Toddlers learn how to dress themselves, basic hygiene, and where to put their belongings. As they become school aged, children need to learn higher level life skills such as laundry, cleaning, grooming, and cooking. 

Life skills cooking checklist, recipes, and tips

Life skills Cooking activities

Life Skills Cooking activities not only teach important meal preparation, they address a wide variety of areas.

We’ve covered a bit about the benefits of cooking in previous blog posts:

  1. Develop motor skills through cooking
  2. Executive function skills through cooking
  3. Learn math skill through cooking

And, these areas are just the beginning. Some other important areas of development that occurs through cooking tasks include:

  • Measuring items involves math, computation, dexterity
  • Reading a recipe – scanning, reading, decoding, processing language
  • Following directions including sequencing, working memory, problem solving  
  • Fine motor skills are needed to use utensils, cut with a knife, stir, scrape with a spatula, use tongs, crack eggs, spread an item, or scoop food
  • Bilateral coordination – pouring from a container, holding an item while cutting with the other hand, holding a pan steady while stirring or flipping objects, opening containers, putting items together
  • Attention to details, timing, frustration tolerance, organization

The OT Toolbox has an informative post on teaching Following Directions using Cooking

The amount of skills addressed during cooking activities is a great incentive to use them in your treatment sessions, while working with learners of all levels.  While it is not essential for all of your learners to be able to bake a cake, look at all the skills it addresses!

Sometimes I ask myself why I am teaching a learner to bake a cake, when it is not a basic necessity.  Then I am reminded of the core skills it teaches to be able to move onto higher level cooking activities. 

A learner who can not follow a basic recipe on a box, will struggle to read from a cookbook.  Someone who can not mix two to three ingredients, will struggle to work with seven in a salad.

The OT Toolbox has a great collection of resources called, Cooking with Kids.  It is full of recipes and cooking ideas.

Life Skills Cooking ideas

Use these ideas as cooking tasks for learners to start off with. The cooking tasks listed below are great beginner cooking tasks to support development.

  • Cake from a mix- easy to follow directions with minimal ingredients. Tasty results!
  • Muffin mix- Martha White and Jiffy Mix often just call for milk and possibly an egg
  • Macaroni and cheese- this works on a plethora of skills as mentioned above, it is yummy, and a staple for children and young adults. Add some meat and a vegetable, and your learner can have an entire meal
  • Cookies- start with the ones that are pre formed, or slice and bake
  • Ramen Soup- what could be simpler than heating noodles and water on the stove or microwave?  Again, easy to learn, low cost, filling, delicious, and can be served plain, or with add-ins such as meat or veggies
  • Pancakes and waffles are a great staple that work on many skills, using limited ingredients. You can use a mix to grade down the activity or use a homemade pancake recipe to offer more opportunities for measurement and pouring.
  • Sandwich preparation– Sandwiches are a great basic item that involves problem solving, sequencing, following directions, and fine motor skills.  This is a safe option for learners to make on their own, as they do not have to use a heating element, and can spread items with the back of a spoon instead of a knife for added safety.
  • Frozen dinners- early or lower level learners may need to spend time working on making frozen dinners using the microwave.  While this seems like a simple task, it still involves several steps, including problem solving and judgment. 
  • Rainbow Smoothie- This is a great way to add different fruits as nutrition but also a way to practice slicing bananas, chopping different textures, pouring liquid, managing buttons on a blender, and using safety strategies: blender buttons, placing the lid, using a knife, reaching into a blender, plugging in a kitchen utensil, washing dishes, etc.

Beyond the Basic Cooking Activities

Once your learner has mastered a few basic skills, it might be important or relevant to teach these next level skills.  If your learner is not likely to ever need these skills, you can continue to work on mastery of basic food items.

  • Cooking vegetables like potatoes, carrots, broccoli
  • Grilling meat, either on an actual grill or countertop grill.  The George Foreman grill is relatively easy to use
  • Using a crock pot to make a soup or stew
  • Baked goods: making cookies or muffins from scratch
  • Cooking meals that involve more than one pan. Learning to time spaghetti and sauce, or meat and vegetables

Sensory Based life skills Cooking Activities

Cooking is a great way to engage sensory seekers and avoiders.  It is helpful to work with picky eaters on cooking, as well as those with tactile sensitivity. Making food can be motivating. as your learner may be more excited to try something they have created.

  • Pizza – mixing, kneading, rolling, pounding, stretching the dough. Touching the toppings adds different sensory components
  • Pretzels – similar to pizza, learners have fun creating pretzel shapes
  • Cut out cookies – rolling, cutting, sprinkling, and tasting
  • Meatballs – mixing, rolling the meat into balls
  • Salad – handling different items, cutting, sorting, and preparing
  • Lasagna – while this might not be a young learner’s favorite, it is a messy task that involves several textures

Tips and Strategies for teaching Life Skills cooking

These tips are helpful for all learning, not just cooking.

  • Break the tasks down into smaller chunks to make them more manageable. The learner may not be able to do all the cooking, but can probably stir items in a bowl or pour ingredients
  • Choose times for learning when there is not a rush.  Learners cannot work under pressure
  • Set realistic expectations.  Your two year old might not be able to make a sandwich independently.  That’s ok, they can help find the ingredients
  • Accept mediocracy.  Learn to accept food might not look or taste the best.
  • Before starting, think about any sensory/motor/logistical components of the task and problem solve through them
  • Backward or forward chain. Backward chain would be to do all of the work for your learner, then have them come in and finish the final step. This offers a sense of accomplishment.  Forward chaining is having your learner do the first step, just before they become overwhelmed, you finish for them.  This gives confidence that they can do some of the tasks, if not all
  • There are many steps for a learner to remember during any life skills task
  • Minimize distractions and sensory input prior to starting
  • Stay calm and do not add more pressure
  • Let your learner do for themselves, only intervene when they start to get upset. Do not rush to fix everything so quickly. They will not learn that there is a problem if you constantly fix the errors before they notice the problem
  • Give the learner opportunities to be independent, even at a small task

If your learner has sensory related concerns, the OT Toolbox has a great resource called the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, with checklists and strategies to weave sensory activities into your learner’s day

Life skills checklist

Cooking skills can be developed from a very young age. These cooking tasks listed below promote cognitive development, direction-following, decision making, motor skill work, and many other areas.

Important things to note:

We’ve separated these tasks into ages, but this is a generalized list of ages. Some kids will not accomplish the tasks listed below, and that’s ok! It’s a way to know where and when to work on age-appropriate cooking activities with kids.

This list is also not necessarily guided by age. While ages are listed below, the cooking tasks can be viewed as a sequential progression based on cognitive skills needed, safety considerations, executive functioning development, etc. Look at the list as a guide to progress toward life skills achievement in the area of cooking skills.

When you view the cooking life skills checklist below in that way, it can be used to support life skills development for any age, including teens, adults working toward more independence with cooking abilities.

Toddler Cooking Skills

Generally these tasks can be accomplished from 1-2 years of age, during the toddler years.

  • Help rinse fruit and veggies
  • Pour with assistance
  • Tear lettuce and other leafy foods
  • Stir with assistance
  • Brush butter or olive oil on foods
  • Retrieve and sort ingredients in the kitchen
  • Sort ingredients
  • Turn pages in recipe book
  • Obtain utensils when setting the table
  • Help identify items in the grocery store
  • Help wipe up safe spills
  • Drain small canned foods with drainer
  • Sprinkle seasonings or cheeses
  • Dipping food items into sauces, oils, etc.
  • Learn essential safety rules in kitchen
  • Open/close cabinet doors and drawers

More specifically, some cooking skills broken down by age include:

2 Years

  • Stack cups
  • Place utensils into a basket or caddy (not sorted)
  • Wipe up spills with direction and support
  • Bring dinner plate to sink
  • Passive participation in cooking (playing in the kitchen while an adult is cooking)
  • Pretend play cooking with toys, kitchen toy set, etc.

Preschool Cooking Skills

During the preschool years, young children are developing more motor skills, behavioral and emotional regulation, and cognitive processes. These relate to less support with some of the previous tasks, as well as more independence with others.

Some ways your preschooler can help in the kitchen:

  • Rinse fruit and veggies
  • Pour liquids and dry ingredients with assistance
  • Tear lettuce and other leafy foods
  • Stir with assistance
  • Brush butter or olive oil on foods
  • Retrieve and sort ingredients in the kitchen
  • Sort ingredients
  • Obtain utensils when setting the table
  • Help identify items in the grocery store
  • Find recipe in recipe book
  • Help wipe up safe spills
  • Drain small canned foods with drainer
  • Sprinkle seasonings or cheeses
  • Dipping food items into sauces, oils, etc.
  • Learn essential safety rules in kitchen

Broken down into age group, try using these cooking tasks to develop skills:

3 YEars

  • Sort utensils into a caddy
  • Help set the table, using support and visual/verbal cues
  • Wash hands before a meal
  • Help clear the table
  • Pretend play to feed and cook for baby dolls or toys

4 Years

  • Set the table
  • Dry dishes (non-breakable)
  • Pour water from a pitcher into cups (not filled completely) with spilling
  • Help with cooking with one step directions: gathering ingredients, pouring, mixing, kneading, stirring at a counter
  • Cut dough with cookie cutters

5 Years

  • Help to make snacks
  • Scoop dry ingredients
  • Open containers with assistance
  • Slice bananas or other soft fruits

Elementary Cooking Skills

As children gain more precision and dexterity, as well as ability to read and write, they gain more independence in cooking tasks. These activities can be a great help around the home as the child aged 6-8 helps out in the kitchen.

  • Cut and dice fruits and vegetables
  • Use the toaster
  • Crack eggs with some shells
  • Preheat the oven
  • Use a can opener
  • Use a peeler and corer for potatoes and apples
  • Spoon and place food items into pans or trays
  • Begin to stir food on stovetop with supervision
  • Help make the grocery list
  • Clean up simple to moderate spills
  • Transfer food bowls and plates to table
  • Help make a grocery list and identify food items at the store recognizing cost 
  • Begin to read recipes and follow the steps with guidance
  • Whisk and if older, use a mixer with guidance
  • Use the microwave with support
  • Help load and unload the dishwasher

Broken down by age, these cooking tasks can look like:

6 Years

  • Empty dishwasher and put away dishes
  • Pour water, milk, or juice without spilling
  • Put away groceries
  • Make a simple snack
  • Pack a basic lunch
  • Make sensory play recipes like slime, goop, oobleck, etc.

7 Years

  • Mix, stir and cut with a dull knife
  • Pour cereal and milk into a bowl

8 Years

  • Load the dishwasher
  • Spread peanut butter on bread
  • Read and follow a basic recipe
  • Make a grocery list
  • Crack an egg

Older Kids Cooking Life Skills

The cooking tasks listed below can be started with older kids. This list is a great place to start for the teen or young adult who hasn’t had much experience in the kitchen. For graduates heading off to college, or the young adult going out on their own, go through this list to ensure life skill development in the kitchen:

9- 12 Years

  • Make scrambled eggs
  • Cook hot dogs
  • Read and understand nutrition labels
  • Plan a balanced, healthy meal for the family
  • Write down a recipe
  • Complete cooking tasks in a certain amount of time
  • Use a microwave with assistance
  • Cut, slice, and dice fruits and veggies
  • Crack eggs without shells
  • Use a can opener, peeler, grater, whisk, and corer
  • Drain larger food items
  • Follow basic recipes
  • Complete baked good recipes with guidance
  • Make sandwiches and salads
  • Use stove top to complete simple frying such as grilled cheese and eggs
  • Stir and sauté foods on stovetop with supervision
  • Help plan and develop a grocery list
  • Clean up advanced spills
  • Transfer some hot food bowls and plates to table
  • Help to identify food items at the store recognize cost 
  • Begin to read recipes and follow the steps with guidance
  • If older, use a mixer with guidance
  • Use the microwave with guidance
  • Load and unload the dishwasher

13 Years and older

  • Slicing raw meats with various knives and utilizing hygiene safety
  • Chopping ingredients using various knives
  • Using stove top and oven
  • More independence with making recipes
  • Using various kitchen appliances such as mixers, blenders, grills, wok, grater, etc.
  • Complete operation of dishwasher
  • Frying foods on stove top
  • Use a peeler, chopper and corer
  • Retrieving hot items from stove top and oven with oven mitts
  • Planning a meal, building a grocery list, and shop with guidance in budget awareness
  • Clean up significant spills utilizing proper sanitation
  • Transfer got food bowls to table
  • Reading and completing multi-step recipes

Here is another great checklist from the Focus on the Family website. 

Common Pitfalls with Cooking tasks

There will be roadblocks with unexpected twists and turns along the way.  Expect these, and learn to adapt quickly as needed. Here are a few:

  • What if the timer goes off but the item is not yet ready?
  • The timer has not gone off yet but the item is clearly burning
  • Your learner adds too much or little of an ingredient (hopefully they will learn from mistakes or the item will still taste ok)
  • There are multiple items to attend to at once, and your learner forgets something
  • The item ends up a complete disaster
  • You realize there are some serious safety concerns (learner does not understand how hot something is, or how to handle hot objects)

These examples come from my personal experience.  I did not think of these variables that ended up happening in my sessions. I had to learn to let go of some control, as long as my learner was safe. There were definitely some mistakes and disasters.  

True story: I worked with a sixteen year old for several months.  One of her main goals was life skills cooking.  She had difficulty with problem solving.  I decided to let her make mistakes, so she could learn from them.  I figured that a cup of salt instead of sugar, or a cup of oil instead of a quarter cup, would ruin an item enough to teach her to be more careful.  It turned out by some miracle, each of these items turned out ok!  They tasted fine to her, and she could not tell there was a mistake.  That was one of those life lessons for me, to learn to back up and let go of some control.

Cooking Tips

  • Start early
  • Practice
  • Be realistic (your learner may never want to learn to cook more than Ramen, PBJ and Mac&Cheese)
  • Create room for error and problem solving
  • Mix things up so your learner can learn to be flexible
  • Do not be that parent who sends their teenager off to college with zero life skills
  • Even the lowest level or smallest learner can often help with some part of the task if they can not do it themselves (I work with a boy whose job is to watch the baby and yell when she wakes up)
  • Cooking with learners can be a fun AND yummy treatment session!

For the record, my daughters went to college well prepared in the life skills department. The common sense department was clearly lacking (the prefrontal cortex does not develop until mid 20’s).  My stepson, on the other hand, has neither life skills, nor common sense.  Bless his heart!

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

NOTE*The term, “learner” is used throughout this post for readability.  This information is relevant for students, patients, clients, preschoolers, kids/children of all ages and stages, or whomever could benefit from these resources. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.