I plan a cooking experience every week for my preschoolers. We don't always squeeze it in, but when we do I try to include some science in with our activity. Cooking is chemistry, you know. It involves states of matter (liquids and solids) and combining (mixing) or changing them (with temperature change, for instance) to create new substances. I encourage the kids to describe the matter throughout the process and I use the terms 'liquids' and 'solids' along with other new terminology relating to cooking such as 'batter'. I try to include picture recipes to 'read' and measuring tools (cups and spoons) whenever possible.
We do always talk about safety when we cook. This involves not only hand-washing, but also safety around hot and sharp objects they might find in the kitchen. I often pose situations and ask the children questions relating to safety rather than just tell them the rules. As with other explorations, children learn best by relating things to their own lives.
'Cooking' in preschool does not always involve heat. 'Cooking' includes food preparation of all kinds in my classroom. Some cooking experiences we have had this year include using measuring cups and picture recipes to make various cereal mixes and 'GORP' (good old raisins and peanuts-the generic term I use to include throwing a bunch of stuff out of the pantry together and enjoying it), chopping sliced ham with butter knives and whisking scrambled eggs to make green eggs and ham for Dr. Seuss week, and measuring and shaking Magic Leprechaun Powder to make pistachio pudding.
Last week we studied the farm and my favorite cooking activity to go with this theme is to make butter. This is actually so easy, it's kind of pathetic, but it becomes almost magical to the children. All you need it heaving whipping cream (found in the dairy case at your grocery store), a dash of salt (optional, I usually just have this in the container when we start), and a container with a tight seal.
As we pour the whipping cream into the container we talk about that it is a liquid. I ask the kids what liquid it reminds them of and someone always compares it to milk, thus starting a conversation about the dairy group, animals that produce milk, and whatever other related tangents we travel down. Conversation is important not only to make the connections but to keep the kids' minds off the fact that the making of butter is a bit boring. As we talk we pass the sealed container around taking turns shaking the heck out of it. I always make sure I get a turn as well so that it gets plenty of good shakes and also so I can tell where it is in the process of becoming butter.
As we shake it the liquid becomes a froth, then a gel-like solid, and finally separates into butter (solid) and buttermilk (liquid). This is when it is done. We compare the way it feels when we shake it as we take our turns. And when it is finished we have it on bread, muffins, or other treat with our snack. I always offer up a taste of buttermilk for the brave students too. I talk about that buttermilk is used to make things like pancakes, biscuits, and brownies, (which many of us love) but many people do not like the taste of it by itself.
Cooking lessons teach lifelong kitchen skills, but can also include nearly every other area of the curriculum: science (chemistry), math (measurement, counting, time), reading (a recipe), safety, vocabulary, fine motor (or gross motor, in the case of butter, which uses lots of arm movement) skills, language (both receptive and verbal), social studies (where our food comes from), as well as making connections to the children's daily lives and of course enjoying the products we create. Yum!