Cooking Instructor & Author Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer, educator and cooking instructor (whose favorite students are her own two children!). Creating meals with seven-year-old George, who has autism, inspired Gabrielle to write her most recent book, The Kitchen Classroom: 32 Visual GF/CF Recipes to Boost Developmental Skills. While all of the recipes are suited to a gluten-free, casein-free diet, the book is as much about the wonderful benefits of the parent-child cooking experience — especially for children who need help with sensory integration, motor, language, communication and attention skills. A former cooking instructor for Williams-Sonoma, Gabrielle currently teaches at Gratz College in Pennsylvania. Her students have included teens with autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD and other disabilities. Based in Philadelphia, PA, Gabrielle also conducts workshops for parents, (with their children or alone), teachers and therapists. She recently launched a program at her synagogue for special-needs children and their families.
Cooking with George
by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer
During the busy week when my husband and I are juggling working and taking care of our children, I always look forward to a quiet spot that I reserve for Saturday afternoon when my son, George, seven, and I cook together. George, who was diagnosed with mild autism at age three, loves to cook—and so do I. We started cooking together when he was just four—inspired by our RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) consultant, Jennifer—who tried cooking with George as a way to engage and connect with him.
George, I should mention, is minimally verbal and struggles with not only expression but also attention. That is, he has lots of attention for things that interest him and that he can do on his own: looking at picture books, working on 48+-piece jigsaw puzzles, coloring in coloring books. But George, like many children who have ASD, does not naturally gravitate to back-and-forth, dynamic activities that build relationships – which is why I value our cooking time together so much. When we cook, George and I work easily in relationship: I may pour and he may stir, or vice versa. We read the list of ingredients that we’ll need together and go on a search through our pantry and fridge to find what we need. We measure, mix and mash, with easy back and forth. George clearly feels competent when he is cooking with me, and I savor the way that our attention is joined together.
“When I cook with George, I am first and foremost concerned with us sharing attention and experience …”
For children who have autism, cooking provides a wealth of opportunities, including the kind of experience-sharing that I describe above. Cooking is also a great way to work on fine and gross motor skills (stirring, kneading, juicing, carrying groceries, etc.); sensory integration (think of the different smells and textures involved in cooking); pre-literacy (looking at the letters on food labels, reading through recipes together); math (counting, fractions, etc.); and even science (watching how ingredients change in response to temperature). When I cook with George, I am first and foremost concerned with us sharing attention and experience — but I also use our time together to work on these important skills.
Because George loves to be in the kitchen with me now, I squeeze in time during the week when we can chop up veggies for dinner, make a quick fruit smoothie for breakfast or dump ingredients together to make a delicious gluten-free trail mix that we’ll eat for snack. These moments also help to connect us and create opportunities for us to communicate.
I also think about the way that I am teaching George valuable life skills as we cook together, ones that may some day turn into a vocation. For now, I try to stay present and embrace the joy that I feel while cooking with my son.
Popcorn Balls: A Recipe From “The Kitchen Classroom”
(Note: For a dairy-free version, use “Earth Balance” instead of butter.)
- 10-12 cups of popped popcorn
- 1 bag of marshmallows
- 1/2 stick butter
- Optional decadence: candy worms, candy corn, “autumn mix” pumpkins, etc
Kids can dump out the popcorn into a big bowl. If you are adding extra candy, dump that in, too and stir with a big spoon. A grown-up can melt the butter and marshmallows over low heat … be careful not to burn!
A grown-up can pour the butter/marshmallow mixture over the popcorn. Let it cool for a minute or two.
Give kids a large wooden spoon to stir the mixture. Let the mixture cool for another minute or two until it is just warm to touch. Show the kids how to take a scoop full of the mixture and press it into a firm ball. Place the popcorn balls on a sprayed sheet. Let sit out for an hour or two until they are firm. YUM!!!
Ed. Note: Awe in Autism does not promote any specific products, services, treatments or therapies, and this article is not an endorsement of any of the above. We have chosen to publish this article because we believe it offers insight that may be useful to many of our site visitors, and because its emphasis on creativity is consistent with our mission and purpose.