Updated: Apr 23
It's often said that a kitchen is the heart of a home. But sometimes, spending time there is complicated, especially if your child has ASD. It can be hard to figure out how your ASD child could be involved in cooking related activities, but it's a great way to manage stress and grow closer as a family.
Cooking and enjoying a meal together as a family has a variety of health benefits as well. The American College of Pediatricians found that children and young adults who dine with loved ones are more likely to do better in school and get better grades—40% more, in fact—than those who don’t. Family meals also improve children’s language skills. A 2006 study conducted by researchers from Harvard and The University of Tulsa found that mealtimes are important for language development because they allow children to hear more complex and longer conversations. Since families talk more while eating together than during any other group activities, children also get a chance to expand their vocabularies.
Not surprisingly, preparing and eating a meal as a family greatly improves one’s mental and physical health, especially for kids. A Harvard Medical School study from 2000 found that teens who eat with family develop healthier eating habits and absorb more nutrients from their food, while a University of Illinois study found that children and teens who eat with their families are 35% less likely to develop eating disorders and 24% more likely to have healthier diets.
Spending time in the kitchen with your child may seem daunting if your child has ASD. Here are some tips to make that easier:
Before you even begin cooking, you may want to review some kitchen safety basics with your child. Explain what making the chosen dish entails, how your child can help out, and which appliances he/isn't allowed to use. This will help everyone feel more comfortable, and be safer, in the kitchen.
Start with simple, short recipes that are quick to prepare. That way, your child is less likely to get distracted, tired or overstimulated. You may want to begin by trying something like a smoothie, having your child pick out a few fruits to add, and a liquid base. Or, you could make avocado toast, and your child can mash the avocado and choose some toppings, like tomato or cheese. You can work up to recipes that have a few more steps, like boxed brownie or cake mix, or premade cookie dough.
If your child gets overwhelmed very easily, try using visual aids. Not only can these help make tasks more manageable, but they can help boost independence by reducing the need to prompt your child to something. Visual aids are also helpful when you'd like to review a recipe with your child before making it, since the pictures will show your child what to expect. Technology makes visual aids really easy to use as well. An app like Proloquo2go is a great option. It has several features that help those who can't communicate verbally, but also allows you to take photos of ingredients while cooking, assisting in breaking down that step into even smaller tasks.
Think of basic tasks your child can assist you with while you cook: perhaps they can gather ingredients and tools from the fridge or pantry for you, or set the table. Maybe they can wash produce, or stir a bowl of cake batter. These sorts of tasks are straightforward enough to be easy to complete, but also let your child to help out during dinnertime, while allowing your child to practice skills that help foster independence.
To make kitchen time even simpler for everyone, consider using a meal kit service, like HelloFresh, Plated, or BlueApron. These are food delivery subscriptions. A company sends you a box with a recipe card, cooking instructions, and all the pre portioned ingredients to make the recipe, eliminating the time needed for gathering and measuring items while cooking; perfect for a busy weeknight. Your child can still actively help out in the kitchen even if you’re making dinner this way. They can unload the package, unwrap the ingredients, and hand you different ones as you need them. The majority of meal kits are highly customizable: there are vegetarian options, lactose intolerant ones, and others for large or small families. You can even choose what specific meals you want delivered, and how often. The wide variety of available meal kits also means that you are sure to find one that fits your budget.
Lots of children and young adults who have ASD are very sensitive to certain textures or sensory based activities. Sometimes, that can be stressful if your child is averse to a particular texture of food. But, consider using your child's interests in textures/sensations to your advantage while cooking as a family. This will add a fun element of sensory play to your kitchen time. For example, if your child really likes the sensation of squeezing or mashing something, you might try having them mash potatoes or crush garlic. If they're really interested in pressing or pushing, you can make bread together and have your child knead the dough.
No matter how stressful cooking as a family may seem at first, give it some time. And remember, the only thing that matters is that everyone enjoys themselves.