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Cooking With Lightbulbs and Gadgets! The Process Way of Cooking
By Donna McKenney

It was small group time and Mary (my co-teacher) and I were ready to make muffins with the children as part of a mini-unit on the book Give a Moose a Muffin. To prepare for this project, we placed a large mixing bowl, stirring spoon, measuring cup, cupcake papers, baking pan, and ingredients consisting of two eggs, flour, sugar, milk, oil, vanilla, baking powder, salt, and chocolate chips on a tray. We even anticipated potential accidents by placing a damp rag nearby. Knowing children and the excitement generated by cooking, we decided to cook in two groups to eliminate waiting. As you can see, we were really prepared.

The first group of children came to the table quickly, and this is how it went:

Sue said, "I’m not done."
I said, "We all want a turn."

Latasha said, "I want to do the eggs."
I said, "We only have two."

Richard said, "Why can’t I stir more?"
I said, "We have to share."

Richard said, "I don’t want to share."
I said, "You need to cooperate."

Richard said, "I didn’t want to do this anyway," and left the table.
And so it went.

Mary experienced the same scenario with the second group of children.

At the end of the day, Mary and I evaluated our cooking experiences as well as our lesson plans, so that we could plan for future projects. We discussed how much the children loved to cook, and how fun it was to see them eat things they had made. But we also discussed the problems that occurred when the children were asked to pass the bowl and spoon to another child, or when the children didn’t get to add all the ingredients.

Looking back on our previous lesson plans, we noticed that these problems occurred repeatedly. In the only way they knew how, with seemingly rebellious attitudes, the children were trying to tell us that they wanted to be involved in the entire cooking process, not just the finished product. By saying, "No, I’m not done," and "I want to add the eggs," the children were communicating two things: 1) a natural desire to be involved in the whole process of cooking, and 2) they were developmentally ready for the cooking process.

Curriculum Development Through Cooking

Cooking covers a multitude of skills and concepts, but when focused on the final product rather than the process, children are unable to take advantage of these skills. For example, when the teacher holds the recipe card, the children fail to become involved in the act of reading. Similarly, when children do not have the opportunity to measure, they are unable to practice math concepts. Furthermore, if a child is unable to witness the changes that occur when a liquid blends into a powder, he or she does not experience the science skills associated with capturing air in a mixture to cause bubbles, the glossiness that results when an egg is added to a mixture, or the delicious smell that develops as the process unfolds.


Process Versus Product

To begin teaching using the process approach, list each step involved in the cooking process from selecting a recipe and preparing the cooking area to the actual mixing and baking of the ingredients. The following suggestions will help get you started.

1. Give children choices. Children need the opportunity to explore and learn with different types of foods and food choices. If you are going to make muffins, allow children to choose from blueberry, cherry, chocolate chip, bran, or apple muffins.

2. Select the correct recipe card. Nonreaders need recipe cards that match pictures to appropriate ingredients and utensils. For readers, a printed recipe provides children with the opportunity to practice reading skills.

3. Use proper hygiene. Washing hands and wearing an apron should be the beginning of any cooking experience. Tip: Aprons are hard to tie in the back, tying in the front is easier.

4. Teach Important Skills and Concepts.


·        Math skills can be taught by comparing one cup of flour to one cup of sugar. The children will notice that there is less sugar in one cup than flour when poured into separate bowls. You can also compare the textures of flour and sugar; sugar is grainy and flour is smooth. The same comparison can be made with baking powder and salt; baking powder is smooth like flour, and salt is grainy like sugar.


·        Explain the difference between one cup and one teaspoon; 1/2 cup and 1/2 teaspoon; 1/2 cup and 1/2 teaspoon, and liquid and solid measuring cups.


·        Pour cooking oil into a bowl filled with water and observe how the oil separates into little beads when it hits the liquid.


·        While stirring, ask the children if the stirring gets more difficult as milk, flour, and sugar are blended together.


·        As the eggs are added to a mixture, ask the children to describe the color and texture of the eggs—clear and yellow, runny and round, shiny and slippery. Point out how the egg separates into pieces and how the mixture turns from dull to shiny as the mixture is blended together.


·        Encourage children to smell and describe the aromas of different ingredients such as vanilla, cinnamon, oregano, garlic, etc.


·        Use a cooking timer to teach time.


A Unique Way of Cooking

Thinking back on the cooking projects I had done in the classroom (projects similar to the one that began this article), I realized that my children were missing a great deal in our cooking experiences. I thought about the vegetable soup we made. Several children diced potatoes, while others sliced carrots and cut celery. A potato's white, starchy juice, a carrot’s rings, and a celery’s strings make each vegetable unique. Yet, the children were not able to observe, feel, and compare all of the vegetables; their cooking experience was limited.

With minimal teacher involvement, the process approach to cooking allows each child the opportunity to choose recipes that interests him or her. Using a recipe card, the children are able to find and gather the ingredients and utensils on their own. Following a recipe card, they are able to prepare and complete a recipe. This method not only allows for the process in cooking, but also lets children make choices, solve problems, learn from their mistakes, cultivate good social skills, and develop new tastes for different foods.

How to Set Up a Cooking Center for the Process Approach

A cooking center should be like any other center area, an area that ensures safety and allows the children to move freely. Limited space, as well as money is also a consideration when planning a cooking center. The Easy Bake oven provides safety as well as cost efficiency. Goodwill stores, thrift stores, and rummage sales are excellent places to find these ovens at a reasonable price. I have not paid more than $2.99. By offering to "fix" broken ovens, you can often purchase the ovens at a lower price. Fixing a broken oven usually requires replacing a light bulb.

Three Easy Bake ovens allow at least six children to cook during center time. I’ve found that adding three sets of measuring cups and spoons so that each child can have his or her own utensils avoids waiting and fussing. So that children can experience the entire cooking experience, I added a dish pan, drainer, and dish cloths to the cooking area for clean-up.

Affordable Recipes

All recipes should allow the children to be independent in their cooking choices and experience the total process of cooking, as well as be simple and inexpensive (see sample recipes below). Furthermore, the recipes should be appropriate for children ages three to 12. I have found that the mixes available from the manufacturers of Easy Bake ovens to be costly for a large number of children. After many experiments with other mixes, I have learned that Jiffy mixes work best, needing only water and the mix.

In order to cook successfully, the children should have a recipe card that meets the needs of both readers and nonreaders alike. A recipe card that has text and pictures works well. The children can then decide what to make (for example a picture of a peanut butter cookie, blueberry muffin, or piece of corn bread) by matching the end product to the picture on the mix container. The recipe card should also picture the utensils, instructions, and ingredients needed to complete the recipe.  

Expanding Your Cooking Center

Unfortunately, there are things Easy Bake ovens are unable to cook or take too long to cook such as pancakes, sandwiches, and different types of cultural food. On my many trips to second-hand stores, I noticed a large number of sandwich makers priced within my limited budget. Once again I began to experiment with the possibilities. As with the Easy Bake oven, the sandwich maker allows each child to make individual choices and use the process method to cook, but it can cook a wider range of food which includes omelets, meat sandwiches, pancakes, bread pudding, rice pudding, French toast, etc. Since sandwich makers are divided into four sections, four children can cook their own recipes in only four minutes.


Equipment Tips

The following are some of the things you may want to consider for you cooking area:


light bulb (Easy Bake) ovens

dish pan


sandwich maker

dish soap

dish rags

electric skillet


covered containers



dish drainer

cooking spoons

paper towels


measuring cups/spoons


cooking mittens

eating utensils

vegetable brush

wire whisk

dish towels

vegetable peeler


It’s Good for Parents, Too

As I continue to expand the complexity of the cooking appliances and recipes in the cooking center, I find that the parents become more enthusiastic. They begin to ask what the children are making and how it is possible for them to cook. Children also talk about what they make in school at home. One mother shared with me how she had gone to get a Sunday newspaper. While she was gone, her son made pancakes and an omelet for her. Other parents have asked for recipes, and then later shared how they could prepare pancake batter, cook in only four minutes, and eat pancakes on the go. Still others told me that the children themselves mixed up the muffins and cooked them while the parents were getting ready for work so that everyone in the household was ready at one time.


Enhancing the Cooking Experience

By adding an herb garden to your science center, you can grow and dry herbs to be used in the cooking center. Many of the herbs are unfamiliar to the children. The herbs give them a chance to try new smells and tastes. Fresh basil or lemon grass, for example, can be used on lunch-time salads, and dried oregano or rosemary can be included in omelets.

Cooking experiences can broaden a multicultural curriculum, too. Children enjoy eating food in the appropriate cultural manner. This often encourages children to try things they would refuse to eat normally. When cooking Chinese, for instance, use flat spoons for soups or chop sticks for fried rice. If you’re cooking Italian, dip bread in olive oil and garlic mix. When eating African, encourage everyone to eat out of one bowl.


I have used process cooking in my classroom for 17 years with children from ages three to 12, and I have used it in a pilot program of 75 children at risk. I cannot begin to adequately express the benefits that have resulted. I have seen children who could not sit longer than three minutes stand and stare at an Easy Bake oven for 13 minutes, waiting for their food to finish baking. (You cannot see anything happening in an Easy Bake oven while it is cooking!) I have seen children gain independence and self-sufficiency, as well as become creative free thinkers and gain socialization skills and a deeper concern for others. I have seen a child make a pancake, divide it into six equal parts, and invite five friends to share one bite of his or her creation. An activity as simple as cooking, when approached as a process rather than a product basis, can accomplish all of these wonders and more. Happy Cooking!

Donna McKenney has been a kindergarten teacher, program director, educational coordinator, resource consultant, and adult inservice trainer for preschool and school-age topics. She is the author of Cooking With Light Bulbs and Gadgets, a recipe card package for children ages three to 12 that includes recipes for muffins, cakes, cookies, biscuits, brownies, corn breads, etc. For more information, call 414-527-0563 or write to 3526 N. 86th St., Milwaukee, WI 53222. You may also contact her by e-mail at mm@execpc.com.

Great Recipes

Italian Cheese Puff

3 Tablespoons Bisquick baking mix
1 Teaspoon Parmesan cheese
3 Teaspoons water
1 Pinch oregano

Stir mixture until blended. Using your hands roll dough into balls. Lightly coat baking pans with baking spray. Bake 10-12 minutes in an Easy Bake oven. Let puff cool before eating. Yields one serving.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

3 Tablespoons dry, yellow cake mix
3 Tablespoons water

Stir mixture 25 times. Coat sandwich maker with baking spray (top and bottom). Pour batter into sandwich maker and sprinkle with brown sugar. Place a maraschino cherry and 1/2 pineapple ring on top. Close lid tightly and bake for 4-5 minutes. Let cake cool before eating. Yields one serving.

Recipes reprinted with permission from Cooking With Light Bulbs and Gadgets.

Safety Tips

1.       Only teachers plug in ovens.

2.       Water cannot be near ovens.

3.       Wear hot pad mittens when getting pans from the oven or opening sandwich makers.

4.       Do not lick spoons or bowls.

5.       Wash hands and wear an apron.

6.       Let food cool and share with a friend.



Procedures for Cooking Center

1.       During transition time, decide who will cook.


2.       Each child must wash his or her hands and put on an apron.


3.       Each child will choose what he or she will make. It doesn’t matter how many choices you have, just as long as the children have some choices. (i.e., choices could be corn bread, brownies, or blueberry muffins).


4.       The children begin cooking by matching the pictures on the recipe card to the needed utensils and ingredients.


5.       Measure and mix ingredients.


6.       While the food is cooking, encourage the children to begin cleaning up.


7.       Share food with a friend.

During the above procedure, problems will inevitably arise. However, small problems can enhance the learning process by providing children with an opportunity to assist each other. I have gone to the cooking center many times and heard one child tell another, "That’s way too thick, and it won’t taste good; add some more liquid." What better way to foster independence, self-helps, and most of all, self-esteem in children!