A Unique Child

“We must make time to cook in our nurseries”

  • “We must make time to cook in our nurseries”

Cooking sessions offer young children a smorgasbord of learning opportunities, says Edwina Revel…

More than any other generation we are exposed to a range of recipe ideas, thanks to the popularity of cooking shows on TV – but are we more confident in the kitchen?

Families are increasingly dining out or eating on the go, and as a result there has been a decline in home cooking.

A number of studies have identified a lack of cooking skills and knowledge about food preparation as a barrier to healthy eating and preparing meals from scratch – so what can we do?

Grab your apron!

In early years settings, cooking sessions are a fun and engaging way for children to learn about and try new foods. There are lots of benefits to cooking and learning about food:

  • Children are more likely to try new/refused foods if they’re involved in the preparation and cooking of them. Tasting, smelling and getting messy as you feel new textures of foods are all important parts of any cooking session.
  • It provides children with the opportunity to develop their social and communication skills, and learn how to work as part of a group. They will also be practising their fine and gross motor skills as they spread, mash, whisk, pour and peel.
  • Cooking offers plenty of room for creativity and a sense of achievement at the end of each session. Perhaps most importantly, it introduces children to a variety of foods and their benefits, helping them to make healthy choices.

Many settings like to incorporate cooking sessions by preparing snacks or puddings from their menu. Snacks provide a brilliant opportunity to involve children in simple tasks, for example, if you’re offering fruit they can help to wash, peel and cut them into fingers.

Try not to overcomplicate recipes; keep them simple using a range of familiar and unfamiliar ingredients so children learn about and have the opportunity to prepare, cook and try different foods.

During snack-time, have conversations about the food on offer and ask children questions, such as:

  • What does it look like?
  • What does it smell like?
  • Why is it good for us?
  • What colour/s can you see?
  • What is this food called?

Choose snacks recipes in line with the ‘Eat Better, Start Better’ Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines – you can read more about this here.

Get them involved!

Children’s cooking skills will differ based on their age. As long as they’re always supported by adults there are lots of ways they can get involved. Teach all children food hygiene practices, ensuring they wash their hands before cooking.

Toddlers around 18 months to two years will need assistance in learning how to grasp and hold cooking utensils, and shorter activities will work best for them.

They will enjoy holding finger foods, smelling them and using words to describe what the food feels or looks like.

Between the ages of two to three, toddlers will be excited to develop fine motor skills from basic cooking skills, such as learning to hold a knife or fork or chop and mash soft foods while being supported.

As children become more confident they may have more ability to chop food into desired shapes and sizes, such as circles or squares with limited or no support. Children may show increased control in handling objects such as using a grater or peeler while being supervised.

Recipe: A Very Hungry Caterpillar…

Books are a great way to encourage discussion and support learning about food. They can encourage children to learn where food comes from, and about life cycles and how food grows.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a classic children’s story that sees the titular creature munch his way through a range of delicious foods.

You can bring the story to life with a sandwich caterpillar that’s perfect to serve as part of tea or snack.

This recipe supports children to develop basic cooking skills such as chopping, cutting and spreading. All you need is a few basic ingredients and pieces of household equipment…

Ingredients: (Serves 3–4 children)

  • Handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 large tomato
  • 2 sticks of celery or 1 cucumber
  • 6 slices of bread
  • Sandwich filling of choice, eg tuna, chicken, hummus


  • Small round cookie cutters
  • Child-friendly knives for cutting
  • Child-friendly knives for spreading

1. Get the children to wash and dry the tomatoes and celery.

2. Demonstrate how to use the cookie cutters to cut out 2 small circles from each slice of bread and encourage children to copy. This will form the body of your caterpillar.

3. Ask children to choose a sandwich filling and support them to spoon and/or spread this onto their bread.

4. Now take the celery or cucumber to make the caterpillar’s legs. If using celery, it’s best to remove the stringy bits so it’s easier for children to cut and eat. Support children to cut the celery/cucumber into small 6 cm strips.

5. Give each child a tomato and support them to carefully cut this in half.

6. Now you’re ready to assemble your caterpillar! Encourage children to work together to stand their sandwiches up on a board or plate.

7. Encourage children to gently place the caterpillar’s legs in between each of the sandwiches.

8. Ask children to pop the tomato halves onto the caterpillar’s back.

9. Now for the finishing touch – the caterpillar’s head. Place the large tomato at the front of the caterpillar’s body. Use the leftover celery/cucumber to create the antenna and use any leftover filling to add eyes and a smile.

Learning opportunities:

  • Develop cooking skills – chopping, cutting and spreading.
  • Encourage discussion and learning about food – ask children questions such as: What colours can you see, smell? Why are vegetables good for us? How do tomatoes grow?
  • Mathematics – encourage children to:
    • count and measure the ingredients
    • check there is enough ingredients and equipment for everyone
    • use a visual timetable to sequence the order of creating the recipe.

Have confidence!

When cooking with your children the good news is you don’t have to be a master chef; there are lots of simple, creative recipes to choose from that require minimal equipment, plus plenty of tools and resources to support you in building children’s skills and confidence – for example, the DfE’s ‘My Activity Passport’, which outlines a number of activity ideas for children to try, both at home and in-setting, that promote learning and development, including learning about food.

Why not try…

Creating a display around home cooking vs commercial food, highlighting cost and nutrition and signposting parents to First Steps Nutrition Trust resources.

Sharing your menu, through your noticeboard, newsletter or website. This can provide parents with guidance about what a balanced diet looks like, as well as recipe ideas to cook with their child at home.

Edwina Revel is a registered nutritionist at Early Start Nutrition, which provides a range of training modules to promote positive attitudes and enjoyment of nutritious food throughout childhood and beyond.

Visit earlystartgroup.com/nutrition to find out more and discover a range of blogs and recipe videos to share with families.