Teaching Cooking to Special Needs Children

Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

Cooking is an incredibly motivating and versatile activity that can be used to teach a wide variety of skills to students with special needs. In this lesson, you will find ideas for using cooking in your classroom.

Cooking as a Teaching Tool

Cooking is an exciting way to introduce a wide variety of skills to your special needs students. And who doesn't like food? There are two ways to use a cooking lesson for students with special needs:

  • Teaching them how to cook
  • Teaching them using cooking

Teaching cooking is an excellent way to address a wide variety of student needs.
cooking supplies

Cooking and Life Skills

For students with severe special needs, life skills are often a part of their curriculum; the goal is to equip them for independent living. Several distinct skill sets are involved in teaching your students how to cook:

  • Understanding kitchen safety
  • Understanding cooking vocabulary
  • Identifying and using cooking tools
  • Reading and following a recipe
  • Preparing for and planning a cooking project

When teaching students with special needs to cook, you should follow the same basic principles involved in providing them with instruction in other subjects.

Basic Principles

One principle used to teach special needs children how to cook is task analysis, or breaking tasks into simple steps and explicitly teaching them how to perform each step before putting the steps together.

Another principle is utilizing multi-sensory instruction involving as many of the five senses as possible. By its nature, cooking appeals to many senses: pay particular attention to the instructions used for cooking, providing plenty of visual and auditory cues.

Finally, make sure you're familiar with the individualized goals of your students and tailor cooking instruction accordingly to address those goals. While looking at individual needs, consider the ideas, opinions, and preferences of your students, which will motivate them further to learn to cook.

Mrs. Carson's Cooking Lesson

A cooking lesson can address skills in the areas of communication, fine motor, problem solving, math, and nutrition; it can also provide a platform to hone social skills. A cooking lesson also lends itself well to tailoring instruction for diverse learners.

For example, in Mrs. Carson's kindergarten class, several of the students have special needs and require intensive, individually designed instruction. In addition to addressing the kindergarten curriculum, Mrs. Carson plans activities that address her students' goals in the areas of communication, gross and fine motor, self-help, and social skills.

Mrs. Carson's class cooks on Fridays; prior to the class, she plans a cooking activity to correspond with the letter of the week. She prepares a step-by-step picture recipe, then puts the recipe into a photo book so that each page shows a single step of the recipe.

Let's look at how Mrs. Carson's Friday cooking class can help special needs students develop skills in the following areas.


Mrs. Carson starts her cooking lesson by having students brainstorm some foods that begin with the letter of the week. She also has her students work on ''reading'' the recipes and defining some cooking vocabulary words, like spatula, colander, and griddle.


While reading the recipe, students use their communication skills to ask questions or express opinions about food. They also use them to request a turn and share ideas related to the cooking process.


During the hands-on portion of the cooking lesson, students measure and count ingredients. Sometimes, students perform basic addition and subtraction. For example, the recipe calls for four eggs. If Kelly put in two eggs, how many more eggs do we need?

Motor Skills

Students must also perform a variety of cooking actions, such as pouring, stirring, and slicing ingredients and opening containers. Mrs. Carson regularly introduces cooking tools that require different motor movements.

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