Special needs kids can improve skills with cooking

Cooking to connect

By Naila Francis

Before Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer calls her son George to the dining room table, he is bouncing around the living room, walking back and forth, clambering onto the couch, pressing himself against her as she walks by, his hands a frenzy of motion, his mouth spouting agitated gusts of impatience.

Then, finally, it is time. Kaplan-Mayer escorts George, 9, and his sister June, 6, both decked out in colorful aprons lovingly made by Grandma, to the table, which is laden with apples, bananas, honey, grape juice, nuts and spices.

It is the eve of Passover and they will be making the traditional charoset, an activity both children have been looking forward to all morning. June is excited, too, but George, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, is given to a more restless anticipation.

But as Kaplan-Mayer places an apple in his hand with a corer and divider, gently instructing him to push down on the center, the transformation is remarkable. He becomes quiet, taking to the task with an earnest concentration and simple joy that lights up his face.

“It really helps him focus,” says Kaplan-Mayer, noting that other steps in the recipe — such as cutting the apples, peeling and chopping a banana, crushing the nuts, pouring all the ingredients into a bowl and stirring them — all help with stimulating his senses and improving multiple skills, including those he will need to hold a pencil and write. And as he works with June, who is just as involved in every step, he’s learning even more.

“It’s a great opportunity for him to practice turn-taking with her and for kids who struggle with social connections, it’s a great way they can come together to do something,” says the Elkins Park mom, who for the last several years has been teaching cooking to children with autism, ADHD, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, engaging them in activities similar to that morning’s charoset-making.

She’s even authored a children’s cookbook, “The Kitchen Classroom: 32 Visual GFCF Recipes to Boost Developmental Skills,” published by Woodbine House last year, which shows parents and teachers how to make cooking a meaningful learning experience with their kids while working on their sensory integration, motor, language, math, communication and attention skills.

Yet several years ago, when a cognitive behavioral therapist who’d been working with George, then 4, suggested cooking with him as a way to boost his ability to relate to others in back-and-forth interactions, Kaplan-Mayer balked at the idea — even though she’d always loved cooking and had her own fond memories of cooking with her grandmother as a child.

“I thought she was completely crazy because George was not able to focus on anything for more than literally 30 seconds to a minute, except for something he really wanted to do,” she recalls. “At that time, he would only do activities he could do himself, like puzzles or Legos.”

Then she watched that therapist make edible play-dough with him.

“I was just blown away,” says Kaplan-Mayer. “He enjoyed pouring the flour and stirring with her. They eventually made it into a ball together that he could roll out and knead. … I was really inspired from that session with the therapist.”

She began cooking simple recipes with George once or twice a week, an activity June would also join in on as a toddler.

“When you take a child who previously was like, ‘I just want to do my own thing, I don’t want to connect with you,’ and suddenly you begin to build a relationship, that was the most exciting thing, to see that he wants to share something with me,” she says. “That social piece is the most important piece because once you have that, you can do so many other important things, and we now share more experiences together.”

It wasn’t long before Kaplan-Mayer was recreating her kitchen experiences with her kids in the community, offering cooking classes at the many synagogues and youth group programs where she’d been teaching for years. She now leads “Kitchen Classroom” workshops, featuring recipes from funny face toast and chicken wraps to rice noodle lasagna and carob-coconut cookies, for parents, therapists and teachers all over the country. The recipes she created for George and June, and subsequently those workshops, complete with simple step-by-step instructions, color photos to accompany each part of the process and highlighted educational opportunities, ultimately inspired her cookbook, which includes a CD-ROM that carefully breaks down each recipe.

One for fruit salad, for instance, lists all the ingredients and tools that are needed and then begins with a photo of the kids reading the recipe with a grown-up, taking them through every step from washing their hands before they begin to slicing the fruit with an adult’s help to using a spoon to put some of the completed salad into their individual bowls.

“I think that the book itself is great for the children we work with because … the recipes are laid out in a very kid-friendly way,” says Amy McCann, who has been using the book as program director at Carousel Farms in Warminster, which offers a summer camp for children and teenagers with developmental delays, intellectual disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders to improve their social and communication skills. “For the population we’re working with, the goals and skills are explicitly taught. Taking turns, sharing materials, all the dynamics of creating a recipe together are specific training goals that our population needs.”

On Thursday, Kaplan-Mayer and Annmarie Cantrell, a wellness chef and educator, will offer a workshop, “Nutrition and Cooking for Children with Special Needs,” at Carousel Farm. The program will include recipes and cooking activities to strengthen connection and communication and build essential skills, while also focusing on the many ways malnourishment, even in well-fed children, can contribute to behavior and immunity problems, as well as developmental delays.

“It’s so much easier as a parent when your child is at home to cook a meal while the child is occupied in some way — you cook it quickly and you go about your day,” says McCann. “But the idea is that meals are something the child, the teenager, the young adult can be able to do with more independence, especially at that transition age of 13-14 where families are starting to recognize that they not only have to do for their children but become advocates of their children doing for themselves.”

That children often dive into the experience of cooking is sometimes a surprise to their parents.

“He really, really likes the classes,” says one Elkins Park mom, who has taken her 4-year-old son, diagnosed with autism when he was 2, to three “Kitchen Classrooms” so far. The mom, who wished to remain anonymous, says her son is such a picky eater, eating only what he wants to and nothing else, it’s amazing how much fun he has cooking.

“He loves the chopping and he likes the making and the doing, and the way (Kaplan-Mayer) has it set up, they can do all of it or most of it,” she says. “I think it’s made him feel more confident. Cooking with the kids gives him that communal feeling and that’s something we’re working on, feeling and understanding he’s part of a group, which I think is really important.”

None of Kaplan-Mayer’s recipes are elaborate, but they are all created with proper nutrition in mind, relying on wholesome natural ingredients that reflect a time, she says, when children always saw meals being prepared at home instead of served up through processed convenience.

“Before this book, I tended to make easy foods most of the time. Everything came out of the freezer and went right into the oven or microwave. We have decided to make a concerted effort to eat better as a family now and being able to cook together makes it both easier and more fun” says Nadine Silber, a Bristol Borough mom to sons Ethan, 6, and Aaron, 4, who have both been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

Silber has created several recipes from “The Kitchen Classroom” and come up with a few of her own, happy to watch her sons practice taking turns and work as a team.

“We have also learned new vocabulary — like mix, cut, chop, bake, grease — practiced counting and math, practiced back-and-forth conversation, learned safety skills, learned how to follow a recipe, worked on fine motor skills and just had fun in general,” she says. “My kids respond to things that are fun, especially if they involve getting messy. This is a great fit for them.”

Though all the recipes are gluten– and dairy-free because George is on that diet, Kaplan-Mayer doesn’t force those lifestyle changes on other families but she does encourage them to try making the switch if they haven’t already.

“In our experience, before George started that diet, his digestive system was really erratic. He would range from constipation to diarrhea,” she says. “When we got gluten out of his diet when he was 4 years old, it was the first time he really slept well and slept through the night. I know some parents are hesitant to try it because they think it’s too much work but … when you go with really good basic whole foods, it’s not that hard.”

Cantrell, who is based in Chester County, also espouses a gluten– and dairy-free diet. She was working with children with special needs doing home-based education and early intervention when she began seeing certain recurring symptoms: dark circles under their eyes or fiery red cheeks or ears after they ate, for example, or a tendency to become extremely rambunctious if they went a certain period without food only to have that behavior stabilized with a protein-based snack. Some of what she saw echoed her own health challenges at the time, including a sensitivity to many of the chemicals found in cleaning agents.

So she began doing her own research into the links between food and behavior, working to get herself healthy and to encourage positive dietary changes for issues ranging from allergies to autism in the settings where she worked. She ultimately enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York and now conducts cooking classes and informational workshops on childhood nutrition and making the right food choices for more vibrant living.

She’s seen how removing casein, the protein found in milk, from the diets of autistic children can increase their language from a single word to two- to three-word sentences, how eliminating food dyes and colorings reduces the frequency of tantrums and outbursts and how going both dairy- and gluten-free vastly improves their sleep.

“Gradually, as children begin to heal, their body chemistry begins to change, and they start craving foods that are better for them,” says Cantrell. “A lot of what we talk about is how their immune system is related to what’s happening inside their gut, so it’s really about healing their gut in order to heal their brain.”

Workshops like the one she and Kaplan-Mayer will offer Thursday help raise awareness not just for children with disabilities but all kids and their families.

“If the parents are aware, they’re going to start changing what it is they’re exposing their children to, whether it’s just reading labels or removing high fructose corn syrup or food dyes or GMOS from their diet,” Cantrell says. “My other goal for the kids is for them to have a sense about food, for parents to make their kids involved in the process when they’re really young.

“If they can just get their hands in it and start to feel it and play with it and just have some connection to it, it’s going to change the way they eat.”

For children like George, and Ethan and Aaron, cooking together can also be a way to reframe their potential.

“George is 9 and when I think about him being 21 or 22, I sort of have a feeling, like, ‘Yeah, he can do a seven- or eight-hour shift in a restaurant prepping vegetables,’ ” says Kaplan-Mayer. “He’s easily distractible … but what I see is that during a cooking activity, he will put his attention there. It’s such a tactile, hands-on experience that a lot of things are coming together that help him to focus, but my guess is he’s also aware that at the end there’s a product, there’s something to eat.

“So many times with kids with autism and other special needs, there’s an emphasis on what the child isn’t able to do,” she says. “This is really about believing in your child’s abilities. It’s focusing on what the child can do and then building on that.”

– The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times


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