Helping Kids Learn STEAM Skills in the Kitchen

The benefits of teaching young kids to cook go beyond setting them up for a lifetime of healthy eating—cooking can also help them learn science, technology, engineering, and math. Nutrition Diva chats with Lesya Mervena, co-founder of the I Cook After School program.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #586
The Quick And Dirty

Kids love to cook and cooking can be a great way to increase their acceptance of healthy foods. Knowing how to cook is also an important skill that can set them up for a lifetime of healthier eating. Cooking classes are a fun way to turn math and science concepts into an edible experience.

This week I  am sharing some highlights of a conversation I recently had with Lesya Mervena, who is the co-founder (with Olga David) of a program called I Cook After School. This is a hands-on extracurricular program for elementary school kids, where cooking and kitchen skills are used not just as a way to talk to kids about nutrition and the importance of healthy eating but also as a fun way to teach math, reading, chemistry, physics, problem-solving, and more. 

Teaching kids to cook is a very effective way to get them excited about healthy foods.

I was excited to learn about this program because it makes sense on so many levels. First, teaching kids to cook is a very effective way to get them excited about healthy foods. Second, knowing how to cook is an important life skill, and one that so many of today’s adults have never learned. And third, cooking is a super fun and effective way for kids to reinforce the subjects they're learning in school.

I Cook After School began in 2014 as an after-school cooking program for children at elementary schools in the Chicago area. By March of 2020, the program had expanded to six states. But when the global pandemic closed schools, Lesya and Olga nimbly converted their programs to virtual programs that are now available to parents and school systems nationwide. The company has two registered dietitians on staff and several of their culinary instructors are also dietitians.

Kids are more accepting of healthy food that they make

Kids actually love to cook. This has been something I've used to entertain my nieces and nephews since they were very small.  It’s how we spend time together. As they got older, the recipes got more elaborate. And a couple of them are now off cooking on their own. But I've also found that kids are much more receptive and adventurous about what they're willing to eat and what kinds of foods they might be excited about if they're actually involved in the process of preparing them.

Picky eaters are so much more open to trying new things when they actually make the dish themselves because they're so proud of what they made and they're very invested.

It can be especially useful when you have picky eaters. When a kid is fussy about the foods they eat, it's not just that they're being disobedient. Some kids really have a hard time with various aspects of taste and texture. Being in the kitchen gives them a little bit of control, and that can lower their anxiety about unfamiliar foods.

As Lesya explains, "When you have a picky eater at home, you have to work with them. You cannot just force them to eat something that you want them to eat. So in our class, we see that picky eaters are so much more open to trying new things when they actually make the dish themselves because they're so proud of what they made and they're very invested. So they are curious what it tastes like, and little by little, they expand their taste palette."

Keeping kids safe in the kitchen

I Cook After School works mostly with kids age six to 11. Obviously, you can’t just hand these kids sharp knives. Kitchen safety is an important part of the curriculum.

Lesya says, "When we have in-person classes, even now with virtual classes, our first class of a session starts with kitchen safety. It doesn't matter if it's a young student in first grade or somebody who is in third grade; it always starts with kitchen safety. That's a priority for us.

"Another aspect that we teach is cooking techniques. And even with the little kids, they do their chopping and the pieces of the cucumber will be too large, but then the older kids, with more practice, get more precise."

Teaching kids to cook sets them up for a lifetime of better eating

Basic cooking techniques are such an important life skill for kids to learn. When we cook for ourselves, we generally eat a little healthier than if we're relying on takeout, fast food, or packaged and prepared foods. But we have a whole generation of adults who grew up with no exposure to cooking and, as a result, have no confidence in the kitchen. This impacts their ability and willingness to create healthy meals.  

We have a whole generation of adults who grew up with no exposure to cooking and, as a result, have no confidence in the kitchen.

And as Lesya points out, the kids in the I Cook After School program learn about much more than just cooking. "Beyond cooking, they can practice their social and emotional learning, executive function skills like organization, planning, time management, and problem-solving. Kids don't even realize how much they are learning."

Cooking creates a lot of STEAM

Cooking also gives kids a real-world application for the things they are learning in school, and Lesya’s program is designed to support the STEAM subjects: Science, technology, engineering, art, and math. As she points out, following a recipe involves a lot of fractions, ratios, and other mathematical operations. When we make a salad dressing, we combine acid and oil to make an emulsion. When we bake, we can see chemical reactions happening in front of us. A skilled educator can find so many ways to connect cooking with various scientific concepts.

"We'll learn about gravity through engineering a perfect egg drop," Lesya said. "We create gooey slime or construct an ice cream glacier. You learn so much just by doing!"

Taking kitchen science online

Obviously, the transition from in-person instruction to online learning has presented some unique challenges. Parents have to make sure ingredients and tools are available and someone needs to be on hand to supervise. But the team has added support to help families navigate the technical challenges. They also keep class sizes small so no one slips through the cracks.

At the same time, going virtual has allowed them to extend their reach to school systems nationwide. And while they can’t solve the problems that all school systems are now struggling with, such as unequal access to computers or broadband internet, Lesya is able to work with school systems to customize the scheduling, ingredients, and recipes to accommodate what’s available or accessible for different populations.  

To learn more about the I Cook After School and Kitchen Science programs, parents or school administrators can visit the website icookafterschool.com.  You can view videos, worksheets, and even download and sample some of the most popular recipes, such as their Rainbow Pizza or Chocolate Truffles.

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.