Teaching the Art of Cooking to People with Special Needs

Hi all,
In my first teaching position with intellectually challenged adults, one day a week, my students and I got to spend time in our own commercial kitchen.  I felt so inexperienced on that day since I was living alone in my first apartment and didn't know how to cook.  As it turns out, that one day a week turned out to be the beginning of my own lifelong interest in cooking.  
I just read an article that you may find interesting.   It is titled :"Life Skills Cooking 101 - 6 Steps to Teaching This Key Skill to Those with Special Needs," and was written by Beverly Worth Palomba,  After many years as a teacher, she now is a writer.  Her first book was Special Day Cooking: A Life Skills Cookbook 


Today’s population of children and adults with learning disabilities, Autism, Asperger’s, ADD, ADHD, and Down syndrome is growing. In reviewing recent research, we can find that the average lifespan of a person with Down syndrome in the U.S. is approximately 60 years. That’s an increase of 35 years since 1983! Autism has increased 289.5%, ADHD 33% and developmental disabilities 17% in the last 15 years. 

For those group members that have the joy of teaching cooking to students with disabilities, you will find her article below very interesting.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


The population is not only growing but getting older and, with this, they need the same day-to-day life skills everyone else needs to be functional. Learning basic life skills, like cooking, is essential to functioning better as an adult and becoming independent.

Here are 6 steps and helpful hints to teaching life skills cooking. The recipe to success when teaching cooking is consistency, repetition, and patience with a large dash of humor.

Step 1  -- Kitchen Set Up

I recommend breaking this down into two days. Devote the first day to equipment and the 

second day to ingredients. Cooking should be fun; not overwhelming and stressful. Work together with your child in making decisions about the kitchen set up as this will help your child stay focused and know how interested you are in them learning to cook.

Day One

  1. Take a tour of your kitchen focusing on equipment used for cooking.
  2. Show your student where the utensils, the pots and pans, mixing spoons, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, cutting board, paper towels, toaster, microwave, and blender are and don’t forget the refrigerator. There are a lot of different compartments in a refrigerator that can be confusing.
  3. Review the difference between liquid measuring cups and dry measuring cups. Don’t spend too much time here because it will be more obvious when cooking but be sure they can be easily reached, along with the measuring spoons. 
  4. Next, ask yourself, can everything be easily reached or moved? Are the mixing bowls stored in a pile making it difficult to get the right size? Are the paper towels easily torn from its holder?  
  5. Arrange things with your student so they feel part of the process and that their input is important. This enforces that you are interested in them learning to cook independently. If you’re excited, they will be excited. 

Here are some Helpful Hints on storing and buying equipment: 

  • Since a blender is heavy, try to find a spot on the counter to store it.
  • A cutting board with a rubber backing is best because it won’t slip on the counter, making it safer and easier to use.
  • Depending on the student’s ability, should the knives be stored in a different location? For safety reasons, I always use plastic knifes for cutting during my cooking lessons.
  • Metal measuring spoons with clearly marked measurements that include a 1/8 measurement are best. They last longer and the measurements won’t wash off.

Day Two

  1. Take a tour of your kitchen focusing on cooking ingredients.
  2. Start with the refrigerator. Point out the milk, eggs, butter, juice, etc.
  3. Next, show where the dry ingredients, spices, and oils are stored. 
  4. Then, again, ask yourself, can everything be reached or moved easily? You don’t want your student frustrated trying to reach things or because they can’t read something.

Here are some Helpful Hints on storing and arranging ingredients:

  • To make it easier to lift and pour from large containers, store your ingredients in smaller, lighter containers. For example, you can store vegetable oil in an empty spice jar or pour milk into a quart container.
  • To make it easier to scoop and level dry ingredients, store dry ingredients — like, sugar, flour, salt and pepper — in wide, covered containers.
  • Metal dry measuring cups with long handles and clearly marked measurements are best. They last longer, are easier to use, and, again, the measurements won’t wash off.
  • Store spices in a shoe box container. This will make it easier to put on the counter to see which spices are needed. Start with the most common ones like salt and pepper and then add to the box as you go along.
  • Remember to arrange things with your student. It is so important for them to feel a part of the set up. It does take patience and time but it’s vital to your student’s successful independence in the kitchen. 

Now you’re Ready to Cook!!

Step 2 – Select a Recipe

This may seem like a simple step but finding a recipe that has a few ingredients (no more than 4 to start), step-by-step directions, a colorful picture, only one recipe on a page, and a recipe that lists the equipment and the ingredients needed, can take some time. Having the right recipe to start with is important. You want your student to be excited about the recipe they are cooking and even more so, you want your student to have a fun and successful experience. You don’t want them to be turned off by their first recipe because it was too long and confusing. 

You can try going to the bookstore together and looking through some cookbooks, or search on the internet. Be careful, though, some recipes are much more complicated than you would expect. Read them carefully.

I have found that it’s better to start with one very simple recipe and cook that recipe a few times until your student can complete the recipe on their own. Try starting with a trail mix or smoothie that can be done quickly and enjoyed.

Step 3 – Read the Recipe 

Read the recipe with your student. You may have already done this when you were looking for the recipe but it will help to bring them into focus on their task. Reading the recipe before starting will also allow you to go over any questions they may have.

Step 4 - Gather your Ingredients and Equipment

This is where all the time you spent setting up the kitchen will pay off. First, focus on gathering the ingredients and putting them out on the counter. Then, focus on gathering the equipment and putting them on the counter. This is a good time to note if there are any organizational changes that need to be done later in your kitchen set up. But stay focused on the recipe for now and later, with your student, addresses steps they may have found difficult and look for ways to change that for next time.

Also, if your learner is having difficulty focusing on the ingredients or equipment, cover the recipe with a piece of paper leaving only the part they are working on showing. Then, move the paper as you go.

Step 5 – Cooking Directions

Again, to help your learner focus on one direction at a time, you can use a piece of paper to cover the directions except the one being worked on, or use sticky arrows. Put the arrow on the direction being worked. Once that step is completed, move the sticky arrow to the next direction.

Directions can be difficult and wordy. Try to find a simple recipe with a few steps to start with.  It’s important at this stage for your student to be successful and proud and have quick gratification. 

Step 6 - Consistent Repetitive Routine

Be consistent and repetitive. I can’t say that enough, except to say, be patient and laugh. Learning to cook takes some time but it’s rewarding and fun. Remember to always follow the same steps in the same order: read the recipe, gather the ingredients then gather the equipment. If you are using sticky arrows or paper to help follow the directions, have them ready.  

Repeat the recipe a few times until your learner is able to make it easily on their own. 

Remember to laugh and give lots of praise.  And, yes, there will be spills! Just remember to giggle and have your learmer join in on the clean up. It’s all worth your time and patience to help your student become independent in the kitchen. It will build their self-esteem and self-confidence and, together, you’ll have fun!





This post resonated with me as my husband and I worked in a group home for persons with intellectual disabilities. Consistency was the key as well as simplicity for the recipes. We had lots of nutritious meals that were simple to prepare as well as repetitive...and we were cooking for 12 people for breakfast and dinner! 

Brings back wonderful memories! And many teaching/learning opportunities....

Kaye Beall

World Education

Hi Kaye,

I loved your message.  We have one more thing in common.  I was a weekend supervisor in a group home (congregate living facility) for adults with intellectual challenges.  No two weekends were the same; always with adventures and challenges to look forward to.

Thanks for sharing.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME