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How Cooking Together Helps Kids’ Growing Brains

Simple tips, backed by science: do what you're already doing, but make sure kids are involved.

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Can cooking build better brains? Can parents slow-cook positive character traits along with basic prep skills?

A chat with Sarah Lytle, a Ph.D. at the University of Washington’s interdisciplinary Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, reveals that it might not be quite so simple. But on the other hand, cooking together does offer rich developmental opportunities. To take advantage of them, parents really just need to pay attention to what they’re already doing, and involve kids.

According to Lytle, the UW institute exists, in large part, to spread the word about how kids’ brains evolve as they grow. Science is constantly revealing new dimensions of this complex process, and parents and educators often don’t know or understand how to apply the latest findings. “The pipeline between research and practice has traditionally been slow and clogged,” Lytle says. “We aim to say, here’s what we’re finding out, and here’s what you can do tomorrow.”

Researchers have identified four major developmental stages. Babies and tiny kids are in the sensimotor stage—just starting to navigate the world, thought, and language. Between ages two and about six, the preoperational stage brings more complex language and a dawning sense of self and awareness of others. The concrete operations stage, true to its name, means kids between about six and 12 are mastering tasks and understanding sequences of events. And tweens and teens hit the formal operations stage, where abstract thinking and more complex reasoning come to bear. (Yes, for those of us with kids in this last age group, it can be hard to detect those things amid the Cardi B lyrics and Fortnite expenditures.)

Which phase does cooking suit best? All of them—in different ways. Here’s our conversation with Lytle:

As parents cook, clean, and generally go about their days, what are some development-fostering tricks of the trade?

You can incorporate rich learning opportunities into things you’re already doing. Everyone feels very taxed for time, so whenever possible, let’s not add anything—let’s figure out how to make little tweaks to what you’re already up to, tweaks that bring kids into the process. I know a parent who puts her infant in a high chair in the kitchen and pretends she’s on a cooking show as she makes dinner. That’s a very rich opportunity to build vocabulary. You use so many words in the kitchen that kids aren’t going to hear anywhere else—‘whisk’ just isn’t going to come up elsewhere.

Cooking and food can engage with literacy in a lot of ways. Tell stories from your cultural or personal heritage that relate to food. The fact that you’re making something that your grandmother made, but she would have used lard instead of butter—these stories have characters, they have plot. It’s all part of learning how to follow and interpret a narrative.

How would you say that idea applies to different age groups—the different stages of development research has identified?

For younger kids, cognition might mean counting the five tablespoons of an ingredient. For older kids, maybe it’s figuring out how to double the recipe, or cut it in half. Cooking speaks to executive function, specifically patience and the ability to wait. It can demonstrate cause and effect: what happens when we add food coloring, what baking soda does.

As kids get older, obviously the tasks become more complex. A five-year-old might love cracking eggs, but it might take her 20 attempts to crack one. A few years later, that kid can crack all the eggs.

What about teenagers? We all know the sobering fact that their prefrontal cortices haven’t developed.

Cooking can help a teenager learn about foresight—like, go ahead and make yourself an omelette, but know that you’ll need to do the messy dishes later.

What do you most wish parents knew about kids’ brain development?

Parents often either under-rate or overrate their children’s developmental capacities. They might not recognize that they can learn certain levels of math at a particular age, but they’ll expect them to behave in more orderly and predictable ways than is really realistic.

Beyond that, I wish parents had more confidence in the knowledge that their presence and interaction with their kids is the most important thing. You don’t need toys or tech. Interaction is the most valuable thing—the most important developmental tool. Even if you’re not an expert in something, if you’re engaging with your kid and learning alongside them, that fosters development. It’s not about being an expert. It’s about being with them.