By Nora Heston Tarte

Teaching children to cook at a young age opens the culinary doors for them later in life. Not only will they have the foundation needed to pursue a career in food, the skills they learn also play into many other career choices as well as academics. Cooking with kids gives them a wealth of information about proportions, healthy options and other tidbits that can help them stay fit later in life.

However, cooking also bolsters universal skills such as following directions and completing math equations.

At Dobson Montessori School, cooking is a part of the curriculum for all children ages 6 through high school-aged. It is part of the “practical life” classes they offer and has been included since 1980 when the school first opened. “All very young children want to do what the ‘big people’ in their lives do. It is the natural way every child learns-by imitating those around them,” explains Suzanne Woodford, principal and owner of Dobson. “In Montessori there is a motto: ‘Help me do it myself.’ Even a 2 or 3 year old loves to wipe off a table, sweep the floor or spread peanut butter on a cracker. This natural desire to learn is encouraged through cooking activities.”

“We are inventors, scientists, adventurers. We’re creating, testing and exploring all with our eyes, hands and most importantly bellies to see what great thing we can create next,” says Lauren Cassidy, teen development supervisor at McKee Branch Boys & Girls Club of Scottsdale. “By learning to cook at a young age, you are creating positive habits for the rest of your life. Plus, this could lead to a career.”

From shaking diced potatoes in a Ziploc bag to season them, to dumping measuring cups full of sugar and flour into cookie dough, youth doesn’t mean your child has to be a spectator in the kitchen.

“Visitors are often a bit surprised to see children as young as 3 or 4 slicing carrots with a small knife or cooking an omelet in the cooking center microwave oven,” Woodford says. However, it’s a child’s innate desire to complete tasks correctly that make them successful and also limits accidents in the kitchen. “The joy and sense of accomplishment on the child’s face as they master their own independence is amazing.”

“We offer [cooking] classes because it’s a great way for the teens to get a hands on experience with food,” Cassidy says. The group, which offers two types of cooking classes, strives to teach teens how to be self-sufficient in meal prep as well as offer recipes for good tasting, healthy snacks and meals.

While a child learns how to slice and dice, they are also building self confidence, fostering independence and learning simple tasks such as how to follow directions or read a recipe. From there they delve into deeper skills, using math to double portions or convert teaspoons to tablespoons, gardening to understand science and discovering how to create a well-balanced meal.

“By the time they reach the Jr. High years, they are preparing full meals for the entire school in our weekly hot lunch program,” Woodford shares of her students. The children are expected to plan meals, cook, complete product ordering and clean up. Time management is important as their meals must be completed in time for the other students to eat, and resourcefulness kicks in when substitutions have to be made for items not on hand. “Things do not always go smoothly, a bump in the road can lead to innovation and creativity, and working together is helpful in solving problems.”

Teamwork is definitely part of cooking with kids.

“Our classes are a great way for teens to learn to work as a team. They get to be silly with each other, and learn to present their meals with confidence and pride,” Cassidy says. “Food can always be fun.”

While these skills prepare them for life in the workplace, or secondary education, Dobson also requires that students take county food handler’s permit, which serves any student with an interest in a culinary future.

At the end of the day, students who participate in cooking classes learn by doing. “Hands-on experience is always the best learning environment,” Dobson says.