Freud or Betty Crocker: What’s Cooking?

Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund, was also an influential psychoanalyst and worked predominantly with children who experienced deprivation. She was the first psychologist to recognize the importance of food as a therapeutic tool. Providing food was seen as a “corrective emotional experience” for children whose basic needs had been inconsistently met. This point of view had its detractors and it became suspect to “gratify children’s wishes”.   Hostility to the pleasures of food and eating is a theme that continues today in rigid diet regimens and the constant barrage of food-bashing in the media.

Given my early psychodynamic training in child psychotherapy, it was with a somewhat guilty conscience that I began to explore the use of food with my clients at Kingsbury, students with a variety of social and emotional needs and experiences. For some students, food has been a corrective experience but I would like to explore another phenomenon: the universal enthusiasm our students have for cooking. Mention a possible cooking project and students who can’t stand each other snap to and start negotiating. Kids who appear listless and apathetic are suddenly chopping and sautéing with confidence.Cooking1

The Kingsbury Center recently underwent a major expansion which included the addition of two kitchens; teachers, psychologists, speech therapists, and occupational therapists all cook with groups and individuals on a regular basis. In our interest-based enrichment clusters, following the Renzulli School Wide Enrichment model, cooking clusters fill immediately. A student recently shared her experience with a “Chopped” cluster following the popular television series where she created a tomato pasta sauce that incorporated the required surprise ingredient of marshmallow. This student struggles with regulating her behavior and focus yet has shown considerable innovation and problem solving in the cooking cluster.

Cooking as a Higher Order Thinking Activity

Various writers have made the analogy of cooking to scientific experimentation. The popularity of America’s Test Kitchen speaks to the complexity of the cooking enterprise in terms of chemistry and physics concepts. Learning the basic science of what is happening when bread rises, creates a foundation for innovation. Check out the Cooking for Engineers website for a literal interpretation of this concept. The cooking process has aspects of experimentation and hypothesis testing which can be highlighted for children in a discussion of decisions that need to be made in executing a recipe. Cooking involves problem solving and prioritizing, as well.

Cooking and Executive Functioning

Executive functions are the organization and planning skills important in many academic and life activities. You may have noticed that we mention them often in our blog. These skills are often problematic for students with a variety of learning challenges. While it is obvious that cooking requires organization and planning, following a sequence, etc., there are other more subtle aspects of executive functions that can be worked on through cooking projects. For example, cooking exercises frustration tolerance as you really can’t rush a cake baking or make water boil any sooner than it will. Cognitive flexibility is demanded when the inevitable snafu of missing ingredients or materials requires problem solving and innovation. Cooking can also be a way to get more rigid students out of their comfort zone—they may be more likely to try a new sensory experience if they cooked it.Cooking2

Cooking and Social Emotional Skills

Students with learning disabilities can develop perfectionist tendencies as a way to compensate for the errors they make academically. These students prefer the predictability of a worksheet over more open-ended experiences that may increase their anxiety. There is a certain amount of uncertainty in cooking and it can be a learning experience for these students to see that multiple outcomes can work out. Additionally, students with some tactile or sensory challenges can work to tolerate messiness or unfamiliar textures and smells through cooking. For students with more social and emotional needs, the process of meeting their own needs through cooking can be a step toward more mature social and emotional functioning and cooking with a group can help them tolerate the uncertainty the feel about their needs being met in a sharing situation.

Cooking and Mindfulness

Mindfulness strategies teach us to be in the present moment and have been found to decrease both anxiety and depression.   Noticing and recognizing sensations in the moment as well as allowing the process to unfold are all important components of mindfulness—and good cooking. Cooking under the right conditions can be a form of meditation. What are the right conditions? Enough time, fresh ingredients and a simple recipe with a flexible outcome. For example, students at Kingsbury enjoy making homemade pizza and tortillas.

Until next time, Bon Appetit!

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