A Unique Child

SEN: Cooking

  • SEN: Cooking

Cooking offers amazing learning opportunities for every child regardless of their educational needs, says Adele Devine…

Cooking is something children of all abilities can experience. It is hands-on, sensory and can introduce a variety of different foods. We should start teaching our children that they can cook creatively as early as possible. We can promote independence by allowing children to do as many of the processes as possible. It’s not enough to give them a mixing bowl to pass around or pre-cooked biscuits to decorate. Give each child their own set of utensils and ingredients, and see what they can do. Don’t stick to sweet treats, either – cooking can get children experiencing a huge variety of new smells, tastes and textures that they might not ever access at home.

Recipe ideas

First things first – here are two simple recipes to try in your setting.

Sunshine Pies


● ¼ sheet of puff pastry.

● Tomato purée.

● 1 tbsp of grated mozzarella cheese

● 1 piece of sun-dried tomato, chopped.

● 2 pitted black olives, sliced.

● 1 cube of feta cheese, crumbled.

● Egg.

Preheat the oven 180°C (fan) and add 1 tbsp of flour to a board. Cut out 2 large circles of puff pastry, then roll them out on the board to make bigger circles. Spread with tomato purée and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Now add the chopped tomato and sliced olives. Crumble feta cheese on top, then fold in the edges of the pastry. Brush the edges with egg, then cook in the oven for 10–15 minutes.

Tuna Fishcakes


● ½ cup of cooked potatoes, peeled and diced.

● 2 tsp of crème fraîche.

● ½ cup of tuna in brine, drained.

● 1 tbsp of tinned sweetcorn, drained.

● 1 tbsp of chopped parsley.

● 2 tbsp of breadcrumbs.

Preheat the oven 200°C (fan). Tip the potatoes into a bowl, and mash them with a fork. Add the crème fraîche, tuna, sweetcorn and parsley to the bowl and mix.  Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on a plate. Make a ball with the mixture from the bowl, then press it onto the breadcrumbs. Turn over to cover both sides. Place the fishcakes on a lined baking tray, then cook for 20–25 minutes.

Colour coding cooking

It helps to choose colour-coded bowls, utensils, measuring spoons and cups, so that children can begin to experience weighing and measuring. I use the Primary Science Mix and Measure set from Learning Resources because its spoons are chunky – ideal for little hands – and the cups are shaped to show a whole, half and quarter. It’s easy to create visual recipes with step-by-step instructions. I use SymWriter and add in photos of specific equipment. It helps to break recipes down so children can create their own creations from scratch. Remember to model each step of the recipe, so that the children can see what they are expected to do.

Case studies

Charlie (Age 4)
Charlie was a bright, bouncy, full-on boy who needed to be occupied at all times. If he was busy and being stretched, his behaviour was great; if he was left to his own devices and allowed to become bored, he would look for ways to mix things up – dismantling whatever he could get his hands on, causing damage or general disruption. He was a bit like a miniature whirlwind.

At preschool this was okay because there were lots of activities to investigate and staff to help him with social clashes. However, it was much harder for his mum to keep things exciting, challenging and engaging at home – especially as Charlie also had a baby brother, who was occupying much of Mum’s attention. Charlie loved being in the middle of things and preferred the ‘real’ to pretend play. Cooking really engaged Charlie at nursery, so we suggested it to Mum.

Charlie and his mum started planning things to cook together. They lived near a local shop, so after they had made their plans, they would take a walk to get the ingredients. Cooking was something positive they could do together and both felt that they were achieving something by doing it. It not only helped Charlie’s behaviour, but built a positive relationship between mum and son, which did wonders for Charlie’s self-esteem and his ability to build relationships with his peers.

Lenny (Age 7, Diagnosis: Autism)
Lenny’s limited diet was beginning to cause concern. He would refuse to eat anything other than cornflakes at snack-time. Conversely, he was more than happy trying to eat non-food substances such as play dough. In art lessons he would quickly grab the glue, so our reactions had to be fast…

We started our cooking sessions making individual biscuits. Lenny enjoyed the sensory aspect of these sessions and would have a cheeky taste of the mixture afterwards. Next we moved on to cupcakes. Again the mixture was sweet and tempting.

Following this, we started making bread rolls. We began with simple white bread rolls, before starting to add ingredients such as cheese, onion and sun-dried tomatoes. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted down the corridor and Lenny began to eat the bread, including the extras. Pizza was next. One of my best teacher moments was seeing Lenny devour a pepperoni pizza!

When we started our ‘Under the Sea’ topic, I wondered what Lenny would make of our salmon fishcakes. I was delighted to see him try the smoked salmon and then wolf down his fishcake. Through cooking he was soon eating spinach, sweetcorn, nutmeg, potato, egg, smoked salmon and even prawns. All of these healthy foods that previously he would not have touched were suddenly okay.

This was not limited to school either. At weekends, Lenny cooked with his family. He was gaining lots of practical skills while also eating a growing variety of foods, leading him to have a healthier, balanced diet and, hopefully, subsequently improving his health as an adult.
(This case study was originally published in Colour Coding for Learners with Autism by Adele Devine.)

Learning opportunities

With cooking, children can practise…

● following a visual recipe;

● visiting a shop to get ingredients;

● using the Internet to find a recipe;

● writing a list of ingredients;

● waiting during preparation and cooking;

● cooperating and following instructions;

● listening and taking directions;

● taking turns and working as a team;

● measuring using cups and spoons;

● sharing creations with others.

Final thoughts

There’s a Benjamin Franklin quote that I love: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Children love to role play ‘grown-up’ activities. They may not be getting ‘involved’ at home, so it is essential that they get ample practical opportunities to ‘learn’ at your setting.

Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School for Children with Severe Learning Difficulties and director of the award-winning SEN Assist Ltd.