Pancake day – it’s one of our favourite days of the year!
Tom loves pancakes and helping to make them. With inspiration from this great visual recipe guide from Widgit Software we’ve set up TomTag with appropriate visual prompts so he can follow the recipe with me. There are definitely no prompts needed for eating them!
First, we get out all the equipment
and then the ingredients
Then it’s time to follow the recipe
before choosing our favourite topping
Have fun making your pancakes – I know we did, yum-yum!!
Being able to create quick and healthy hot meals becomes increasingly important as children get older and need to learn skills for independent or supported living. Following simple recipes provides opportunities to work on reading and listening skills, sequencing, nutrition, hygiene and learning to use kitchen tools.
The key thing to remember is to start with recipes that are simple enough to follow with limited assistance, building up slowly to add in more complex skills over time.
With the additional symbols included in our Food & Drink Extended sticker pack, more confident or experienced learners can learn to prepare, cook and serve simple hot meals such as beans on toast, cheese on toast, hot sandwiches and egg recipes. This sticker pack is available as a stand-alone item or included in the In the Kitchen and Independent Living kits.
Cooking – learning life skills with TomTag
Don’t forget to use the opportunity to teach or reinforce rules about hygiene in the kitchen. We’ve included symbols for washing hands and wearing an apron but you could also use blank stickers to add reminders to wipe worktops or store food in the fridge, or use some of the symbols from our domestic chores Clean & Tidy pack.
Show the images for the utensils and food that will be needed to create the recipe you have chosen and check you have everything listed before you begin.
There are lots of skills required in the kitchen besides dealing with the food itself. Knowing how to turn cookers and ovens on and off correctly, taking appropriate precautions with hot equipment, learning safe use of sharp knifes and other utensils are all essential skills to be learnt before a young person can be left to cook unsupervised.
Build on these skills gradually and move on to the next stage only when the individual is ready and capable of showing the necessary responsibility.
Using a set of TomTag button holders and the symbols we’ve included in our Extended pack, you can quickly create step-by-step instructions for numerous simple recipes such as beans on toast, soup, sandwiches, eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled), cheese on toast and pasta with sauce.
Serve it up
Be sure to give compliments and praise and encourage them to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.
Serving and sharing meals with others offers opportunities for practising communication and social skills too.
I’ll never forget the first time Tom made his own jammy toast. Okay, so there was more jam on the kitchen worktop than the toast, but the pride I could see on his face made the cleaning up instantly forgettable.
And the ‘nomination for the life skill that has made the most positive difference to my life to date‘ goes to …. drum roll, please …. Tom making his own hot chocolate on school mornings! I gain a few precious moments to enjoy my breakfast cuppa whilst it’s still relatively hot!
It’s sad but true that man (or boy) cannot live on jammy toast and hot chocolate alone. However, learning to make simple meals, a favourite hot drink or snack is a great starting point for developing independent life skills for older children or young adults with autism.
Here’s some of the ways we’d suggest for using this pack:
Step-by-step sequencing instructions for making breakfast, snacks, simple lunches or hot drinks.
List the food choices available to your child for breakfast, lunch and snacks.
List each family member’s food preference as a reminder to those preparing the food.
Whichever way you choose, here’s a few simple tips to follow.
Choosing the right tasks
Choose tasks that are appropriate to your child’s developmental level. Starter tasks might include washing fruit, cutting soft vegetables with plastic knives or spreading butter on toast (and work surfaces!).
Move on later to more complex tasks requiring greater motor skills, concentration and focus such as using a peeler, chopping with sharper knives or boiling a kettle.
Talking points, an opportunity for learning
Having children help make simple meals in the kitchen provides a natural opportunity for learning on a range of topics.
Teaching children to wash their hands and kitchen surfaces before preparing food or showing them safe ways to use knives helps them to understand the importance of kitchen safety and hygiene.
Practice reading and maths skills by comparing packet labels and counting or measuring out ingredients.
Talk about the effects our choice of food has on our health and lifestyle. Try out the NHS Change4Life Sugar Swaps app for a fun way to find out how much sugar is in our food and drinks.
A recipe for foodie fun
Research shows that repeated exposure to food increases a child’s willingness to eat. On average, children might need over a dozen exposures to a food before ever putting it in their mouth, even more for a child with sensory issues around food.
Cooking meals therefore provides low pressure, fun, sensory experiences. If children associate food with enjoyable experiences, they’re more likely to be receptive to trying new foods and eating healthily. Involving children in meal choices and preparation of simple meals can help to improve their eating habits and establish a healthy relationship with food.
Cookie cutters are brilliant for turning boring sandwiches into enticing nibbles. A selection of different coloured fruits or vegetables look great laid out to make a rainbow.
This play-dough cafe we set up when Tom was younger was a really fun way to engage him with the experience of food preparation. Tom plays the role of both chef and waiter, helping to develop his communication and social skills too.
Listen out for my most favourite comment of all from Tomas at the end “Please mummy, can we make our own food?”!
Praise, encouragement and letting go of the mess stress!
Be sure to give compliments, praise and lots of encouragement to your child to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.
Having kids help out often means a bit more mess to clear up afterwards. Try to be patient and allow for a little extra mess whilst they’re still learning.
Tom loves to cook and takes a keen interest in meal choice and preparation. We’re immensely proud that he achieved a Jamie Oliver BTEC Home Cooking Skills qualification with the help of two highly skilled and intuitive cooking teachers at school and lots of practice at home.
Learning cooking skills not only benefits a child’s health and well-being but also builds their confidence and independence and boosts life skills in other areas, such as maths, communication and social skills.
Tom has autism, sensory issues, and movement difficulties and finds following instructions tricky; a mixture of challenges that doesn’t naturally suggest a recipe for success in the kitchen! So what happened?
His success certainly didn’t happen overnight. He took many small steps over quite a length of time. We encouraged him through his special interests (like making lorry and number shaped biscuits) and took cues from him as to when he was ready to try new things. There was a lot of planning and preparation and a good-sized dollop of patience!
Are you anxious or worried that similar sensory or motor challenges will make it difficult for your child to help in the kitchen? Does the idea of cooking with your autistic child fill you with dread?!
Be prepared to give lots of physical or visual demonstration, plenty of practice and, above all, be patient. Manage sensory triggers and start with fun cooking activities that match your child’s level of interest and ability. We think you’ll be amazed at how much your child will be able to learn, how creative they can be and maybe even the new foods they might try!
Cooking creates a lot of strong sensory experiences like noise, smells and mess that will affect children in different ways.
For sensory defensive children (like Tom), certain textures, smells and tastes when handling and preparing food can trigger a negative reaction. Other children who are sensory seekers are more likely to be distracted by trying to satisfy their sensory needs e.g. chewing or constantly wiping their hands. This lack of awareness can be dangerous when working in a kitchen.
It’s therefore crucial to identify your child’s triggers before inviting them into the kitchen and think about appropriate adjustments you can make in order to avoid meltdowns or bad associations with cooking in the future.
Tips to alleviate sensory issues in the kitchen
Keeping a record of your child’s reactions to sensations will help you prepare dishes that do not include any of these triggers. You can use a simple diary or notebook (like our TomTag Feelings Notebook) to jot down your child’s sensory triggers as well as record your child’s culinary successes.
Arranging food or utensils is a mess-free food activity for children who love order but aren’t ready for touching food. Let them collect and organise the ingredients, line muffin tins or set the table.
Exposing a younger child to play situations with various textures like magic sand, slime or play-dough can help to desensitize them to food-type textures.
Try using thin non-latex medical gloves to avoid skin touching food directly.
Onion goggles (they really are a thing!) can protect eyes from the chemicals that make our eyes water. A normal pair of swimming goggles would probably work just as well!
Consider the utensils you use if your child is sensitive to sound e.g. replace metal mixing bowls and spoons with wooden or plastic.
Offer a long spoon to create a greater distance if your child has food phobias.
Provide access to sensory props like chewing aids or textured towels so that your child’s sensory needs are supported and managed in a controlled manner.
Tom found holding knives and other utensils difficult as the small muscles in his hands didn’t always do what he wanted them to do. He also lacked strength and coordination in his arms which affected his ability to cut, chop, peel or grate. Applying the appropriate pressure for different activities (such as slicing bread as opposed to a banana) was also an issue.
Tips to support children with motor challenges in the kitchen
Getting the right utensils can make a huge difference. Try supersized cookie cutters to compensate for clumsy fingers or look for child-friendly kitchen knives – we love the look of this simple Ikea set.
Practice fine motor skills by tearing herbs and lettuce or rubbing butter and flour into a breadcrumb texture (using the ‘rubbing in’ technique for making pastry and crumbles).
For cutting practice, start with easy to cut food that your child likes to eat. Soft fruit and cooked soft vegetables such as strawberries, banana, potatoes and carrots are ideal.
There are lots of activities around cooking that involve using different muscles. Mixing is a relatively safe and fun activity. Try pancake batter, dressings or sauces and for added fun you can even try shaking them in a jar!
Children learn best by example and in small steps.
Start by teaching the basic techniques such as cutting and mixing before moving onto the bigger tasks like following a recipe.
Stand next to your child and ask them to copy you step by step. Hand over hand support can help with movement and pressure issues.
Having a relaxed and fun atmosphere is the best way to teach new kitchen skills. Find a time to cook when everyone is happy and calm. Tackling cooking when you’re trying to get dinner on the table or your child is hungry will only lead to frustration and tears – yours and theirs!
Resources for cooking skills
Deborah French is a mother of four children, including 2 with special needs. Deborah’s wonderful book The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs introduces children to the fundamentals of food preparation, healthy eating and cookery skills.