There may not be a cookbook specifically for developing executive function but executive function can certainly be developed with a cookbook!
Even from as early as preschool age, cooking with a child is a great opportunity for building language skills. As children reach tweens and teens there’s still valuable life lessons to be discovered through cooking together. (Not to mention some help in the kitchen!)
Cooking from a cookbook/recipe or even just creating the plan and executing a family meal is an excellent way to work on executive function. (Check out a previous post that describes what Executive Function is all about).
Just making the plan for what to cook can be a complex decision in itself.
- Deciding what to make
- Predicting if it’s “do-able” with your skill set for cooking
- Considering who will be eating it to account for preferences/allergies
- Writing the list of ingredients needed
- Planning which bowls, pans, utensils to use for different parts of the job
- Planning backwards about what time to begin each part
- Sequencing tasks so the meal comes together within a short window of time.
Even if your child knows how to cook, the language you wrap around it when you cook together helps develop and reinforce your child’s internal thoughts. The language modeled help him/her organize the steps and remain focused to task and eventually they internalize that type of thinking on their own.
This mental processing (or subvocalizing) through a sequence can play an important role in developing executive function.
Mentally talking yourself through the steps of a complex sequence can support focused attention as well as control impulsivity. Just as olympic champions practice visualizing their motor movements, subvocalizing the sequence of steps while preparing a recipe (or any process) can also help mental planning.
Early in the process of learning to prepare family dinners you can create a written plan in advance together. This will help organize the process to account for different preparation and cooking times. Creating a rough schedule can help keep the process on track.
Planning ahead is an executive function that often needs practice to become automatic for many children. Practicing this skill in different activities helps to integrate and generalize it. By planning ahead, outside of the actual task, you are breaking down the process and reducing the “cognitive competitions”. Over time, when the planning is more automatic, attention can focus on the actual cooking procedures while the plan is “mentally playing in the background”.
Young chefs in the kitchen can trash a kitchen in no time without even noticing the mess accumulating around them. Multi-tasking to “clean as you go” is another learned skill that requires attention to detail that might not be possible when all brain function is focused on the actual steps of the food preparation. Remember, one step at a time……over and over and over (and for those with executive function weakness sometimes over and over a few hundred more times).
Sometimes it’s difficult to notice how many complex sequences and thought processes are involved in everyday tasks.
This is especially true for tasks that we as adults do as “second nature” without much thought at all. For the tween or teen with deficits in executive function the same tasks can be quite the challenge.
Cooking a meal together has many other built-in lessons which would benefit those teens. If your tween or teen has never cooked, take a deep breath, start simple, prepare to exercise patience and jump in. Consider it a future investment and you might just be surprised on your birthday when your child prepares a special meal just for you!